Type of site
Brown Moses Media Ltd.
|Created by||Eliot Higgins|
Bellingcat (stylised as bell¿ngcat) is a Netherlands-based investigative journalism group that specialises in fact-checking and open-source intelligence (OSINT). It was founded by British journalist and former blogger Eliot Higgins in July 2014. Bellingcat publishes the findings of both professional and citizen journalist investigations into war zones, human rights abuses, and the criminal underworld. The site's contributors also publish guides to their techniques, as well as case studies.
Bellingcat began as an investigation into the use of weapons in the Syrian Civil War. Its reports on the War in Donbas (including the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17), the El Junquito raid, the Yemeni Civil War, the Skripal poisoning, and the killing of civilians by the Cameroon Armed Forces have attracted international attention.
The name derives from the idiom "belling the cat", which comes from a medieval fable about mice who discuss how to make a cat harmless. One suggests hooking a bell around his neck, and all the mice support the idea but none is willing to do it.
Eliot Higgins' interest in OSINT began in 2011, when he was arguing in comments of The Guardian and found out that it is possible to verify videos with satellite imagery. In March 2012, he started a blog under the pseudonym "Brown Moses", named after a song by Frank Zappa, through which he published his research into video footage of the Syrian Civil War. He looked at hundreds of short clips on the Internet, localised them, and examined details of the weapons used. As a result, Higgins demonstrated that the Syrian regime was using cluster munitions and chemical weapons. In 2013, Higgins linked the chemical attack in Ghouta (the Ghouta chemical attack) to Bashar al-Assad.
Bellingcat's first major investigation, done mainly by volunteers without external funding, was the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) in 2014. Their conclusion that Russia was responsible was later confirmed by the Dutch-led international joint investigation team (JIT), which found in a report dated 25 May 2018 that the downing of MH17 was initiated by the Russian military. In other investigations using Google Earth, volunteer investigators working with Bellingcat said that they had discovered the coordinates of an Islamic State training camp, as well as the site where an American journalist was killed.
Kristyan Benedict, an Amnesty International campaign manager, told The New Yorker in 2013 that many organisations had analysts but that Higgins was faster than many established investigation teams.
Higgins launched the Bellingcat platform (in its beta version) on 14 July 2014, raised £50k of private donations in the following month through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, and performed additional crowdfunding in 2017. Half of funding comes from grants and donations, the other half from running workshops training people in the art of open-source investigations.
Since 2018 the Bellingcat website is operated by the Dutch Stichting Bellingcat. (tr. Bellingcat Foundation). Bellingcat has received grants from Civitates-EU, Porticus the Brenninkmeijer family philanthropy, Adessium Foundation, National Endowment for Democracy (NED), PAX for Peace, Open Society Foundation (OSF), the Dutch Postcode Lottery, the Digital News Initiative, Zandstorm CV and Sigrid Rausing Trust. Higgins has said much of the grant money does not directly fund investigations and is used for support services such as document translations and training. The organisation publishes guides on how to analyse data and how to create reports, such as "How to Scrape Interactive Geospatial Data" and "How to Identify Burnt Villages by Satellite Imagery".
Higgins told Polygraph.info that grants from the NED and OSF pay for Bellingcat programmes to help journalists and researchers in their investigations. He said that "Most our funding from grants covers stuff that isn't related to investigating anything Russia related."
As of approximately 2019, the organisation had sixteen full-time staff plus Higgins, and at least 60 contributors. Its office was previously located in Leicester; however in 2018, Bellingcat shifted its main office to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands as a result of the impending Brexit and concerns over staff recruitment and mobility. Since 2021, Bellingcat has also had a presence in a new Investigative Commons centre in Berlin, Germany.
As reported in Foreign Policy, one of the unintended consequences of open-source intelligence outlets such as Bellingcat (and others) is that it gives the US intelligence community freedom to discuss Russian intelligence operations publicly without revealing their own sources or methods.
War in eastern Ukraine
On 21 December 2016, Bellingcat published a report which analysed cross-border Russian artillery attacks against Ukrainian government troops and in support of pro-Russian separatists in the summer of 2014.
On 17 July 2014 Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a passenger flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down while flying over eastern Ukraine. All 283 passengers and 15 crew members died after the Boeing 777 was hit by a burst of "high-energy objects".
In a press conference, Russian officials said Ukrainian forces had destroyed the flight and presented radar data, expert testimony and a satellite image. The radar data that showed another aircraft in the vicinity of MH17 was debunked as falling debris from MH17 by experts. A man claiming to be a Spanish air traffic controller in Kyiv stated in interviews that two Ukrainian fighter jets followed the Malaysian plane. The Spanish embassy later said that there was no Spanish air traffic controller at either of Kyiv's airports. The satellite image showed an aircraft firing on the airliner but Bellingcat exposed the photo as a composite of Google images, with the Malaysian airline logo even being misplaced.
On 9 November 2014, the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team published a report titled "MH17: Source of the Separatists' Buk". Based on evidence from open sources, primarily social media, the report links a Buk missile launcher that was filmed and photographed in eastern Ukraine on 17 July to the downing of the MH17 flight. The report, which included photographs and maps, details the movements of the Buk in eastern Ukraine on 17 July, evidence that the Buk originated from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Rocket Brigade in Kursk, Russia, along with a convoy headed towards the Ukrainian border, and the activity of the vehicles seen in the same convoy after 17 July. The Dutch-led international joint investigation team later made similar findings. The head of the Netherlands' National Crime Squad said they officially concluded that the missile that shot down MH17 "is from the 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade from Kursk in the Russian Federation".
In June 2015, Bellingcat published evidence that Russia had used Adobe Photoshop to manipulate satellite images of the MH17 disaster. Image forensics expert Jens Kriese of Germany said that Bellingcat's report used invalid methods to reach its conclusion. In a follow-up report, Bellingcat published crowdfunded satellite imagery and further analysis that supported their claim.
A December 2017 article published by Bellingcat cited a quote from the 2017 British Intelligence and Security Committee report in which a British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) source had stated "we know beyond any reasonable doubt that the Russian military supplied and subsequently recovered the missile launcher" which shot down MH17.
In July 2019, Bellingcat released a six part podcast series, produced by Novel, taking an in-depth look at their investigation.
Syrian Civil War
Beginning in March 2011 after political protests turned violent, the Syrian Civil War has been an ongoing conflict between the Syrian Arab Republic, Syrian Opposition, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and other combatants. Bellingcat reports primarily analyse the factions at war, and what weapons and armour they utilise, as well as news that would normally go unreported by the mainstream media. Bellingcat utilises a network of contributors who specialise in open source and social media investigation, and creates guides and case studies so others may learn to do the same.
In April 2014, Bellingcat published evidence of chemical weapons being used on Syrian civilians, including children. Collecting and analysing video footage from local sources which apparently showed parts of chlorine cylinders, Higgins said that while the contents of the cylinders could not be verified "the injuries depicted in the videos all appear to be consistent with chemical exposure".
In June 2016, Bellingcat published an article showing that cluster munitions were being used against the New Syrian Army. Bellingcat provided photographic evidence from first-hand sources that the munitions used were identical to those used by the Russian military.
In February 2017, Bellingcat published an article detailing how rudimentary drones were being used by ISIL to drop explosives onto opposition targets. Analysing footage from Twitter and other social media platforms, it was discovered that the drones were dropping modified 40 mm grenades.
In September 2016, Bellingcat released a fact-checking article in response to Russia denying the bombing of hospitals in Syria. The article analysed footage from YouTube and images from Facebook, cross-referencing them with areas that were confirmed to be attacked by Russian forces. The article reported that the hospital in question was within the area under Russian attack, although Russia denies these claims.
In March 2017, Bellingcat published an investigative report on the bombing of a mosque in Aleppo that killed over 50 civilians. The article included photographs of the remnants of the bomb used, and showed that the piece was identical to that of similar bombs used by the US military.
El Junquito raid
In May 2018, in partnership with Forensic Architecture and Venezuelan journalists, Bellingcat collected, timed, and located nearly 70 pieces of evidence related to the El Junquito raid, including videos, photographs, leaked audio of police radio communications and official statements, asking for more material to determine if rebel police officer Óscar Pérez and his companions were victims of extrajudicial killings.
Yemeni Civil War
In November 2018, Bellingcat published the results of an investigation on Houthi broadcasts through their affiliated Almasirah news channel concerning missile attacks targeted against two airports in the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi International Airport and Dubai International Airport. The investigation report concluded that "It is highly likely that a Houthi-led drone attack did not take place in Abu Dhabi or Dubai". According to the report, the claims of the attacks constituted a propaganda effort and followed "propaganda pattern" claims by the Houthi leaders.
Following RT's interview with the suspects of the 4 March 2018 Sergei Skripal poisoning case, Bellingcat published the suspects' passport data showing inconsistencies in the official story, and possible links to the Russian secret service. The Russian foreign ministry rejected the report and stated that Bellingcat had ties to western intelligence. It noted Bellingcat's access to a not publicly available Russian database. Two men had been seen and pinpointed as likely to have carried out the attack; Bellingcat said it had identified one of the suspects as decorated GRU colonel Anatoliy Chepiga. The other suspect was identified as GRU colonel Alexander Mishkin. In June 2019 Bellingcat reported that major-general Denis Sergeyev had travelled to London as "Sergei Fedotov", and appeared to have commanded the operation, making and receiving many telephone calls with a single Russian "ghost phone" without an IMEI. Bellingcat analysed position data from Sergeyev's phone to trace his movements in London, following its successfully gaining access to travel, passport, and motoring databases for the suspects.
A report in The Guardian stated that "Bellingcat has frequently sparred with Russian military and diplomatic officials, who have claimed without evidence that Bellingcat fabricates evidence and is a front for foreign intelligence services". Russian media have said that Bellingcat is funded by the U.S. government to undermine Russia and other NATO adversaries.
Christchurch mosque shootings
Following the Christchurch mosque shootings of 15 March 2019, Bellingcat published what the Columbia Journalism Review referred to as "a comprehensive and contextualized report on the motives and movements of the Christchurch killer". In an online posting, Tarrant repeats a variety of "white genocide" talking points, and says his murder of several dozen Muslims is because they are "invaders" outbreeding the white race. Robert Evans refers to the manifesto as shitposting, defined as "the act of throwing out huge amounts of content, most of it ironic, low-quality trolling, for the purpose of provoking an emotional reaction in less Internet-savvy viewers."
Bellingcat assisted the BBC's Africa Eye investigation into the killing of two women and their children by members of the Cameroonian Armed Forces. This followed the appearance of a video on social media in July 2018, initially dismissed as "fake news" by the government of Cameroon before later acknowledging that 7 soldiers had been arrested for the massacre. As a result of this investigation, the US withdrew $17 million in funding for the Cameroonian Armed Forces and the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning "torture, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings perpetrated by governmental forces."
After Ukrainian Airlines flight PS752 crashed shortly after take-off from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport in Iran on 8 January 2020, Bellingcat, in cooperation with The New York Times, used open-source videos to determine that most likely Iran shot down the aeroplane with a surface to air missile.
2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war
On 15 October 2020, a video surfaced of two captured Armenians being executed by Azerbaijani soldiers; Bellingcat analysed the videos and concluded that the footage was real and that both executed were Armenian combatants captured by Azerbaijani forces between 9 and 15 October 2020 and later executed.
In December 2020, Bellingcat published an investigation detailing how the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) unit specialised in the use of chemical agents had been tailing opposition leader Alexei Navalny since the moment he announced his plans in 2017 to run in presidential elections, and had agents near his location Tomsk in Siberia when he was poisoned with the military-type Novichok nerve agent in August 2020. They also suggested similar patterns in the actions of the same undercover agents during an earlier visit by Navalny and his wife to Kaliningrad, when she fell ill with symptoms similar to those of his later poisoning. Navalny's assessment is that in Kaliningrad the agents had tried to poison him, but his wife received the Novichok by mistake. The investigation was published on 14 December revealing the names of both the direct perpetrators of the poisoning and the assassination attempt from the FSB.
According to later investigations, the same team of FSB officers has poisoned several other people in Russia, including opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza and writer and poet Dmitry Bykov
During the Tigray War that started in November 2020 in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia, Bellingcat, together with BBC News Africa Eye and Newsy, published a geolocation analysis of five videos of what appeared to be an extrajudicial execution of 15–73 Tigrayans by soldiers of the Ethiopian National Defense Force speaking Amharic, one of the main national languages. The victims were thrown off the edge of an escarpment after being shot. The date appeared to be mid-January 2021 and the location was found by Bellingcat and the other investigators to be near the village of Mahbere Dego, about 15 km south of Aksum, where the Aksum massacre, one of the main massacres of the Tigray War, had earlier been carried out by the Eritrean Defence Forces, mainly during 28–29 November 2020.
West Papua independence movement
Bellingcat reported on an information operation in Indonesia targeting the West Papuan independence movement with pro-Indonesian government content. BBC journalist Benjamin Strick wrote that "The campaign, fuelled by a network of bot accounts on Twitter, expands to Instagram, Facebook and YouTube." In April 2020, Twitter removed propaganda accounts linked to the government of Indonesia.
QAnon, U.S. Capitol attack, and Ashli Babbitt
Bellingcat has also reported on the attack on the United States Capitol by Trump supporters of 6 January 2021, as well as the fatal shooting of Ashli Babbitt, who took part in the attack. It has reported on Babbitt and the influence of QAnon and other conspiracy theories, which they liken to the process of radicalization.
Russian invasion of Ukraine
During the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Bellingcat wrote about several findings of cluster munition in Ukraine. The organization also collects evidence of war crimes against civilians in Ukraine. In particular, it includes information about the airstrike of the Drama Theater and maternity hospital in Mariupol. Bellingcat's website maintains a page that contains photos of eyewitnesses, as well as reports from various information resources (mainly social networks).
In the New York Review of Books, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, digital journalism lecturer at the University of Stirling, states that Bellingcat has had an influence on how legacy journalism outlets and research institutions conduct open-source investigations:
Bellingcat's successes have encouraged investment in open-source research capability by much larger and long-established media institutions (such as The New York Times Visual Investigations), human rights organizations (Amnesty's Digital Verification Corps; Human Rights Watch's soon-to-be-launched OSINT unit), think tanks (the Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab), and academic institutions (Berkeley’s Human Rights Investigations Lab).
Mentioning "large gaps in foreign coverage" due to reduced newsroom budgets, Ahmad says that in today's digital context, newsrooms have become convinced that "sending journalists abroad is a fool's errand."
The Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism, the Poynter Institute, and other scholars of journalism have recommended Bellingcat guides on how to conduct open-source investigations to journalists and to journalism students.
According to Foreign Policy, the work of Bellingcat was valuable to the United States Intelligence Community because Bellingcat's "transparency about their investigative process also makes it difficult to refute and harder for Russia to dodge responsibility". For U.S. intelligence, there has always been a dilemma between delineating Russian responsibility for wrongdoing while not jeopardizing sources and methods; Bellingcat's transparent process makes it unnecessary for U.S. intelligence to delineate Russian wrongdoing. Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Chief of Station, stated that "The greatest value of Bellingcat is that we can then go to the Russians and then say, there you go." Daniel Fried, a retired diplomat who served as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs under former President George W. Bush, said that "The advantage of having Bellingcat doing it is that you don’t have to have a sources-and-methods debate within your government."
In 2017, Bellingcat-member Christiaan Triebert won the European Press Prize Innovation Award for a detailed reconstruction of the 2016 Turkish coup d'état attempt in a Bellingcat article titled The Turkish Coup through the Eyes of its Plotters.
In 2018 the documentary film Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World was released. The film explores Bellingcat's investigative journalism work, including the Skripal poisoning and the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
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Stichting Bellingcat is registered on 11 July 2018 Business address: Keurenplein 41, 1069 CD Amsterdam, Netherlands
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© 2014: Brown Moses Media Ltd. Office: 6th, 3rd Floor, 37 New Walk, Leicester, LE1 6TA Company No: 8818771
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Vijzelstraat 20, Amsterdam, 1017HK, Netherlands
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Civitates grants €2,467,000 to 11 independent public-interest journalism organisations across Europe for a period of 3 years....The grants are expected to go out at the beginning of 2021. The successful 11 organisations are based in 8 countries and are listed alphabetically according to the country they operate in...
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- Media related to Bellingcat at Wikimedia Commons
- Quotations related to Bellingcat at Wikiquote
- Official website
- Higgins, Eliot (15 July 2014). "What is Bellingcat". Brown Moses Blog. Archived from the original on 22 October 2014. Retrieved 2 March 2021. Inactive since July 2014
- Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World