A conversation with Eliot Higgins

December 17, 2014

Elliot HigginsEliot Higgins, formerly known as Brown Moses, is an open-source analyst who works on tracking weapons, geo-locating sites of interest and profiling militant groups in the Syrian conflict and beyond.

Higgins helped to expose the Syrian government's use of barrel bombs, and recently claims to have located the approximate site of James Foley’s execution in A-Raqqa.

“Videos need to be put into context; they need to be examined, to see what’s happening, who’s fighting, just to have a better view of the conflict,” Higgins tells Syria Direct’s Joseph Adams.

Here, Higgins, the founder of open-source investigative site Bellingcat.com, tells Syria Direct's Joseph Adams what lies beyond the push-and-pull of the various battlefields.

Q: What kind of information is most interesting to you as an open-source analyst, at a micro level? For example, geo-location, arms identification, profiling individual militant groups –how do you decide how to best spend your time, at the micro level, when you’re going through the weeds?

It might be that there’s an individual incident that’s unusual that I’m interested in, that might have all kinds of different aspects. Recently for example the bombing of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, what happened there is we had a situation where the Pentagon was saying we have no reports of injuries or deaths, but one opposition page that was in the area was posting videos, lists of names of people who had been killed, lots of other details.

Q: What do you think are the most important open-source based stories in Syria today, and how do they fit into the bigger picture of where we are with this war?

I think we’re facing a situation in Syria where what we need is to get more people working with open-source information, because there’s still a lot of information coming out of Syria. And it’s interesting because now you don’t have these sort of one-off stories on open-source information. It seems now it’s about looking at the activity as a whole.

For example we keep seeing videos popping up relating to certain battles, but nobody’s really doing anything with them. They need to be put into context; they need to be examined, to see what’s happening, who’s fighting, just to have a better view of the conflict. But that requires a lot more effort.

Q: It’s a question then of looking at the one-off events, I’m thinking of your detailed work tracking different weapons systems, within the broader context what’s occurring in a given battle. Is that accurate?

These TOW anti-tank guided missiles, it seems to me many of them are being used for specific battles. So who is using them, in what battles, to what effect, and how do those battles fit into the context of the area?

It seems to me in the south of the country for example there are lots of battles for hilltops, these hilltop bases, and I think by analyzing the information coming from those battles, not just one but multiple events, I think you’ll be able to understand what’s actually happening there.

It’s not just about them having a battle but it’s part of a wider strategy, and how does that wider strategy fit into what the US is trying to achieve with the moderate opposition. In other words I think we’re at a point now where we need a wider analysis of the content coming out of Syria to have a greater understanding of what’s happening on the ground.

Q: So in this case it was more verification work, that is cross-checking information from on the ground sources with what was being said by a much more official mouthpiece?

Yes, and it’s a matter of collecting it, and then seeing what we could verify, and then we made contact with the people in the village, to get a bit more context. So it turns out there were Jabhat al-Nusra members there recently but they had already left by the time the bombing occurred. 

And you know it’s interesting as well because it raises questions about what intelligence they’re using. If their intelligence is out of date by 24 hours, do they just end up dropping Tomahawks on civilian homes and there’s no one in there? No military target, at least.

Q: In the US these days, it’s getting harder and harder for small news outlets to sustainably produce independent, specialist content, in a pretty stark revenue environment. Some people are saying that’s something that’s exacerbated by citizen journalists giving away so many value added-analyses and excellent sources for free on social media. How can open-source journalism be made sustainable, if it isn’t monetized?

To turn this into something that actually makes money is something that’s very difficult, which is something I’ve discovered in my own work. I started Bellingcat as a non-profit, but it’s not for lack of trying to make it a profitable organization. It’s interesting because when you’re doing this kind of work, nobody wants to pay for it, until you’re not doing it. I often speak to media organizations, and they want to know how they can turn what I’m doing, into something they can do in their newsroom.

Ultimately the organizations I try to get funding for don’t know what to make of this kind of work. I don’t think they understand it, so they can’t see how it fits with what they’re doing. And in a way, because the tools and techniques are so transferable across disciplines, in a way that’s also a problem if you’re trying to get funding for something specific.

So now, when I’m looking for funding I’m looking for funding for very narrow projects, where potential grantees can clearly see the benefit, the objective, and the process. Getting funding on the other hand for the broader Bellingcat site is very difficult. But it’s one of those things that I’m hoping will become easier as these kinds of ideas spread. But then the frustrating thing is, how can I get to the position where I can hire staff members if there’s no money in it?

Q: Now one thing we see here in the Middle East, unfortunately, is the equating of journalists with spies, something that can be incredibly dangerous. So, this with this kind of work, when accessing sensitive content, do you have any best practices in mind? When you advise and train people in the region, do you emphasize the safety component?

Yes, and it’s a difficult one to answer. You can easily see how someone working with this could be described as a spy, because it a way it is intelligence work. I think there are a lot of issues that can come up. I was talking recently to this one group that’s doing funding to help train activists on the ground, they’re training activists to help hide their identity, for example where they’re filming from, where they’re producing videos. And I said, in that case, then you might as well not be bothering, because then nobody can verify their work.

So they’re going to get ignored anyway. So how can you produce this kind of work, but in a way that can be verified, while protecting the activist’s identity? These are the kinds of questions that need to be answered going forward. We’re in a very early stage of this kind of work being developed, and we need more discussions about it, especially in the Arab world.

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