Things might have worked out very differently for Eliot Higgins if his studies had kept pace with technology.
The 39-year-old founder of Bellingcat, an investigative website, which in its short life has broken scoop after scoop – including last week’s blockbuster, unmasking one of the alleged perpetrators of the novichok ****** in Salisbury – never intended to be at the vanguard of open-source journalism.
As a teenager, he studied media technology at Southampton Institute for Higher Education. “It was back when everything was still being done on tape and people were transitioning from analogue to digital. All the stuff I was learning seemed to be immediately out of date.”
Disillusioned, Higgins gave up on the course. “It didn’t click. I didn’t complete.” Perhaps if the advent of digital had dawned a little earlier, Higgins might have continued with his course and gone on to pursue a conventional career in the media.
Instead he took a series of administrative jobs while developing an interest in blogging under the handle Brown Moses.
“It started as a hobby. I had no background in any of the stuff I was writing about. It was mainly because in 2011 I was watching the conflict in Libya, and the stuff that was being shared on social media was largely being ignored because it couldn’t be verified.”
Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga is one person who might wish that Higgins had completed his studies and ended up in a normal job.
For it was Bellingcat, in conjunction with a Russian website, The Insider, that made global headlines last week when it claimed that Chepiga was the officer from the GRU, Russian military intelligence, behind the alias Ruslan Boshirov. This would make him one of the two men wanted in connection with the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
The identification of the second suspect is expected soon.
“We’ve got two major things that we’re working on that seem solid but we’re still working to stand them up,” Higgins confirmed. “They’re both related to Skripal, one more directly than the other.”
Identifying the real names of the two suspects was an obvious target for Bellingcat, which now employs a staff of 10 and has a cadre of volunteers, in addition to an audience well versed in exploiting social media and open sources to make connections mainstream journalists might miss.
“A couple of my team volunteered to investigate. They said, ‘The names have come out, let’s try to see what we can find out.’ We’d had success in the past in identifying GRU officers in the case of MH17.
“The team found something and so we started to give more attention to what they’d found. That led to our first story, which led to more people coming forward with information.”
Highlighting Russian involvement in the case of flight MH17, the Malaysia Airlines aircraft brought down by a missile when flying over Ukraine, was one of Bellingcat’s earliest coups. The organisation has also broken stories relating to Syria and Yemen. Its collective approach to problem-solving is reflected in its name.
“Belling the cat” refers to a fable telling how a group of mice decide that the best way to protect themselves from a cat is to place a bell around the cat’s neck – but then are unable to find a volunteer to attach the bell. “Everyone calls us the Bellingcats,” Higgins said. “But we’re the mice not the cat.”
Although it was initially financed through crowdfunding, Higgins now describes Bellingcat as a business.
“We get a lot of our money from donors like the Open Society Foundation [the international grant-making institution funded by billionaire George Soros] and we also get about 50% of our income from workshops that we offer.”
Clients come from a broad range of backgrounds, Higgins said: “journalists, staff from NGOs and human rights organisations, lawyers, people in the business and intelligence worlds”.
Possibly because Russia runs through many of its investigations, Bellingcat has faced accusations from pro-Kremlin sources that it is a tool of enemy intelligence services.
“When Russia started attacking our work I’d already spent two years building up a reputation. All they’ve managed to do since is to prove that whenever they end up attacking our work it’s because we end up being right about something. The more noise they make, the more truthful something appears, basically.”
Mildly spoken – he qualifies many of his adjectives with “quite” – Higgins does not appear to be someone who set out with the intention of becoming a thorn in the Kremlin’s side.
Does he worry about his personal safety?
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. But if a black van pulls up and four Russian guys leap out, there’s not a lot I’m going to be able to do, so I try not to worry about it too much.
“We worry more about cybersecurity than anything else. They’ve tried multiple times in the past. We’ve had large numbers of phishing emails, which were part of the ‘Fancy Bear’ operation and a more recent operation in 2017.”
Perhaps because of what he learned witnessing the switch from analogue to digital all those years ago, Higgins is at his most animated when talking about the shifting power of technology.
“There’s lots of stuff being generated by people, thanks to smartphones, technology and social media apps. At the same time, we’ve also had products like Google Earth, Google Maps and Streetview giving us reference imagery that we never had access to before.
“With Bellingcat, I was the first person to figure out that if you stuck those two things together, you’d get quite interesting information from it.”
And the future?
“The main thing we’re all waiting for now is some sort of reverse image search for videos. That would be the holy grail.”