Bellingcat
Russia

COMMENT: Why Is Bellingcat Purring?

One trip to Salisbury with a bottle of Novichock has cast Russian intelligence and Bellingcat into the world's spotlight.

Bellingcat

Bellingcat identified second Skripal poisoning suspect as Dr. Alexander Mishkin (Picture: Bellingcat).

All intelligence officers are first trained to read newspapers and magazines. This training is especially important to military intelligence because most, perhaps 90%, of what an intelligence desk officer is looking for is freely and constantly available if you know where to look and listen.

Today, it is the stagecraft of the Bellingcat reporting group in London that is working on the same guidelines about the same subjects as MI6 and the CIA.

It is a tried and tested system with a 3,000-year-old history. Moses used it. So did the Greeks.

The earliest Intelligence was found in how to read the weather and how to listen to travellers’ tales.  A nomad telling a market trader that a small army was camped 600 miles away and ships were being built in a foreign port was the first hints of the 13th century BC Trojan Wars to come thousands of years ago.

The same techniques are used today.

The job of a Russian military intelligence officer in Washington is to report each fortnight snippets from the defence magazines and papers - the back pages of 'Aviation Week' are a good example of where a one-line comment may not make the online edition in Moscow.

Most of what is sent back is new to Russian intelligence (not so informed as some people claim) or it confirms what they knew - an equally important aspect of intelligence gathering (as any office gossip would agree).

A complete example of this simple building of the intelligence plot is intelligence reporting on Syria based on deployment of troops from four nations (Syria, Russia, Turkey and Iran), on what readiness state they are; where are supporting elements such a fuel, ammunition and medical; at what leave are forces on readiness to return to units; where are the major force commanders (in HQ or on leave) and how consistent are media reports on troop movements, readiness of sea, land air and who is commanding what.

All this can be found in open sources - newspapers, newsletters, traffic reports, railway station requisition notices, 90 minutes satellite passes, border queues and even full or empty car parks.

Into this equation has come citizen reporting - published in all forms from print to international electronic mediums.

Citizen reporting is by people not tied to a major news organisation such as BBC of New York Times and is something as simple as blogging.

There are many organisations and a lot of them are not reliable. They are too keen to get information online without double checking content and sources.

Others have achieved such a standard of investigative reporting that they are read every day by national intelligence agencies, military, civilian and homeland plus political and military desk officers who include what they present in official briefings up to heads of government level. One such is Bellingcat.

Bellingcat’s main office in London’s Leicester Square is alongside cinemas that thrive on playing the thrillers that Bellingcat reports on for real.

The distinction of Bellingcat as a blogging and news service is that everything comes from open sources - that is, sources open to everyone to read if they know where to look.

Bellingcat knows where to look and then knows what it is looking at.

It was started in 2012 by Eliot Ward Higgins who had been laid off from the civil service and was still out of work, using a laptop and his dining table as a note desk, when he started analysing what was going on in the Middle East and Ukraine.

Founder of Bellingcat Eliot Higgins talks to the press at College Green in London 091018 CREDIT PA
Mr Higgins talks to the press at College Green in London in October 2018 (Picture: PA).

He cannot speak languages other than English and so concentrated on visuals; in his case identifying weapons systems.

From this, he extended his library to open sources on military options - the craft on spotting anything new and importantly, spotting trends. For example, he was the person who noticed that the Syrians were using barrel bombs.

Bellingcat gathered top analysts and would-be intelligence officers who wanted to show what they knew and how to get what they knew.

Today, you will go on the website and get everything from what they claim is the full story behind the Russian military intelligence operations from Salisbury, the Ukraine and Syria to South America.

Using open sources they can look at a weapon, identify its stock numbers, show who is using and for what and through backtracking, demonstrate on whose authority that weapon is being deployed and in what numbers and therefore the operational plan.

But this is not a one-man band.

The citizen reporters are often to be found in the most sensitive posts and mainly defence institutions like the RUSI in London, especially among young, recent graduates who want to flush out big stories and make their reputations.

Retired intelligence officers are lining up to take part in this unpaid adventure. Even the editor of the whole organisation is paid no more than a local newspaper rate. But unpaid, citizen reporting given a platform that otherwise they’d never see or be seen is getting its own publicity.

The guidelines are simple: trust, check and double check. 

The television station France 24 does the same all over the world with its 24Reporters. So nothing new, but one trip to Salisbury with a bottle of Novichock has Russian Intelligence and Bellingcat in the world's spotlight.

Only Russian military intelligence has President Putin asking what the hell is going on.

The guys in Leicester Square have no worries yet. They just keep their eyes and ears open and, unlike the Russian intelligence officers, stick to the guidelines. Success?

Bellingcat has shown that it was not difficult to reveal to a wide audience what has been going on in Russian intelligence operations from open sources (one paragraph, one driving licence number, one school photograph) that all lead to the main story from bits of stories in newspapers in 20 languages, official reports, weather forecasts and asides about cars trapped and all checked, rechecked and checked again until the stream of titbits becomes a major international event.

Bellingcat 2018 is the gossip in the global intelligence market talking to the unsuspecting nomad of today. So far, 10/10.

Christopher Lee is the Forces Radio, BFBS Defence Analyst. He can be heard every week on the only radio programme devoted to discussing matters of defence and security, Sitrep. To listen head here, to download click here.