Bellingcat in Ukraine

Aftermath of a Russian artillery attack upon Ukraine.

There is a medieval fable in which a group of mice debate how to protect themselves from a marauding cat. They agree to attach a bell to the cat’s neck to alert them of its approach but cannot agree who will volunteer to perform the task. The fable illustrates the gap that can exist between a clever idea and its dangerous execution.

A group of tech savvy researchers that originated in England in 2014 adopted the Bellingcat name for their organization, which specializes in fact-checking and open-source intelligence. To complete the fable, they are the mice who volunteer to bell the cat, who these days is Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.

Confronting misinformation

Bellingcat sees its mission as cutting through the fog of misinformation that surrounds wars and conflict. Staff and volunteer researchers use satellite images, social-media posts, YouTube videos, online databases, and more to determine what happened, where and when, and they archive that material for further analysis.

Their research has included the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014, the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Army, the massacre of civilians in Tigray by the Ethiopian army in 2021, and now, the crimes committed by the Russian military in their invasion of Ukraine.

Plaudits and pushback  

While Bellingcat’s efforts have earned plaudits, especially among journalists and media organizations in the West, there has been push back from the Russian and Syrian regimes. They claim that Bellingcat is in league with Western governments and intelligence agencies to spread lies. Bellingcat has been banned in Russia, where it did not have a presence, and the government has made it illegal for any Russian organizations to co-operate with them.

Stubborn determination

Recently Giancarlo Fiorella, a senior investigator at Bellingcat, delivered a lecture in Ottawa hosted by Carleton university’s School of Journalism and Communication. He lives far from any frontline, in Toronto, where he is also a PhD candidate. He emphasized that he is not a journalist, but that Bellingcat’s work can supplement the dangerous work of on-the-ground journalists.

He said that Bellingcat’s employees and volunteers combine their technical knowledge with a “stubborn determination” to get at the facts. “Anyone can learn these investigative techniques. All you need is a computer and an internet connection. You do not have to leave your apartment to contribute.”

Massacre in Tigray

He gave as an example of their work a 2021 massacre of civilians by the Ethiopian military in the country’s Tigray region. Fiorella said that five videos surfaced showing that the shootings had happened somewhere in an arid field. The images were locatable in time and space. By viewing them repeatedly, researchers were able to locate the spot with accuracy. Using other available information, they found that the Ethiopian military was active at that precise location at the time.

Reliable methodology

The methodology, Fiorella said, is reliable and replicable. It involves 1) Image clarification: the reverse search of images to ascertain their origin; 2) Geo-location: to determine exactly where the images were taken; and 3) Chrono-location: to determine when images were taken.   

“We are riding a wave of technical innovation,” Fiorella said. “We now have high quality satellite images available on our phones. This would have been impossible 20 years ago and improbable 10 years ago. This has really changed the way that people locate and use information.”

False claims

Giancarlo said, “There will always be people in the world who will want to convince you that they are not doing what they  are doing.” Bellingcat’s mission, he said, is to make it harder for them to trade in false claims.

To that end, Bellingcat has a project called Civil Harm in Ukraine, recording incidents resulted in  civilian impact or harm since Russia began its invasion. These are cases of the destruction of civilian infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and libraries, and the killing of civilians such as occurred in the city of Bucha.

The critics

The pushback against Bellingcat has not been limited to the Russian government but has been joined by elements of the left in Europe and North America. A British publication called The Gray Zone carried an article in 2021 which was reprinted up by the Monthly Review in New York. The article claimed that Bellingcat accepts money from “war-profiteering firms” and non-government organizations with ties to British and American intelligence agencies, as well as the Office of Security and Co-operation in Europe.

I cannot pronounce on the nature of the donor organizations. I would note that the claims made in the article arise from information that Bellingcat has provided on its website, so they are not trying to hide anything. Nor does the article attempt to refute any of the actual research done by Bellingcat regarding Ukraine.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

For example, some of the earliest evidence in the case of downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 arose from information provided by Bellingcat. The flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur that was shot down in July 2014, while flying over eastern Ukraine. All 283 passengers and fifteen crew were killed.

A Dutch-led joint investigation team later concluded that Flight 17 was struck by a Buk surface-to-air missile launched from pro-Russian separatist-controlled territory in Ukraine. The missile originated from a Russian military unit and had been transported from Russia on the day of the crash, fired from a field in a rebel-controlled area, and returned to Russia afterwards.

Australia and the Netherlands have launched legal proceedings against Russia through the International Civil Aviation Organization. Russia has consistently denied any involvement.

Other theatres

Bellingcat’s current focus on Ukraine is understandable given the size and ferocity of the war there. Bellingcat did pay some earlier attention to the war in Afghanistan, and now to the conflict in Yemen. I will be interested, to see whether the group turns its attention to violent events in other theatres such as the Brazilian rain forest, the Philippines, or the West Bank and Gaza.  

Photo credit

Courtesy of Reuters

10 thoughts on “Bellingcat in Ukraine

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  1. It’s useful to see the information that Bellingcat has provided on a number of situations in an attempt to deal with fake news from other sources. Russia’s denial of the facts continues and this requires receiving information from trustworthy sources in order to guarantee the appropriate responses from governments and concerned organizations and people.

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      1. I say let Bellingcat go about its work and be judged on its accuracy. A Dutch-led joint investigation team into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 found Bellingcat’s information useful. Bellingcat is now investigating sites where Ukrainian citizens were murdered, Bucha being one. On-the-ground journalists including the CBC’s Margaret Evans and the Globe’s Mark MacKinnon, not to mention many others, are working on that story from their angle. If, eventually, charges of war crimes go to the International Criminal Court, any evidence, including that of Bellingcat, will have to stand up to the rules of evidence and cross-examination. Let’s see what happens.

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      2. It has taken a long time before getting to the point where real action has been taken to deal with this tragedy. It’s not clear to me if the fact that financing by ”some very shady and nasty organizations” explains the delay. Why would British and American intelligence become involved in this way? Could they have taken action independently to pursue answers to who was involved in the attack on the flight over Ukraine?

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      3. It is clear that the Dutch and Australian governments, who lost many citizens on the downed aircraft, believe that the Russians were involved, and they have launched a court case. The European Union believes that as well. For that crime, the Dutch government has now convicted, in absentia, four men who are with the Russian military or the separatists in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. That is separate, although not entirely from Bellingcat. The European team investigating the shooting down of the aircraft, collected a lot of information. Some of it apparently came from Bellingcat. I don’t think anyone can credibly say that the investigation by the Europeans was influenced by Western intelligence agencies. Some people do claim, however, that Bellingcat takes money from “shady and nasty organizations.” I will wait to be convinced about that. In the meantime, I will judge Bellingcat, as best I can, on the basis of the information they provide. Is it accurate? That is the main question for me at the moment. But responsibility for the downing of the aircraft has been settled.

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      4. I’m delighted to receive your comments in response to my question. Just to be clear did British and American intelligence also finance the investigation seeking confirmation about those responsible for taking down the flight over Ukraine? Have they confirmed that Russia is responsible?

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      5. A Dutch court recently sentenced two Russians and a Ukrainian to life in prison for causing the deaths of people on the Malaysian flight. The investigation was undertaken by the Netherlands and Australia, both of whom lost citizens when the airliner was shot down. So, intelligence agencies would not have financed the investigation, and obviously not the trial. The men were tried in absentia and Australia is asking that they be handed over. Here is a link to a thorough BBC story about the trial: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63673919

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  2. I had watched the documentary that featured the work of Bellingcat in identifying the origins of the missile that took down the flight over Ukraine. The work of several members of the group seemed clever and meticulous. The Monthly Review article is devastating when it comes to the financing and by extension, association that the group has with some very shady, and nasty organizations, in turn financed by British and American intelligence. Does this alter or nullify their work? Its a question that is difficult to answer because we have no way of knowing how the financing compromises the output. My view is that the financing organizations expect value for money and clearly Bellingcat is providing it. That may mean providing documentation that can be useful to the intelligence organizations but it can also mean compromised research. The funding casts serious doubt on their work.

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