Type of site
|Available in||English, Russian|
|Created by||Eliot Higgins|
Bellingcat (stylized as bell¿ngcat) is an investigative journalism website that specializes in fact-checking and open-source intelligence (OSINT). It was founded by the 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 of the use of weapons in the Syrian civil war. Its reports on the War in Donbass (including the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17), the El Junquito raid, Yemeni Civil War, Skripal poisoning and a mass-killing by the Cameroonian Army 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.
In March 2012, Eliot Higgins started a blog under the pseudonym Brown Moses, through which he published his research into video footage of the Syrian Civil War. He looked at hundreds of these short clips on the Internet, localized them, and examined details of the weapons used. As a result, Higgins was able to demonstrate that the Syrian regime was using cluster munitions and chemical weapons. In 2013, Higgins linked the significant 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 notable 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 2014 with the help of private donations received 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.
Bellingcat has received grants from Porticus, Adessium, The National Endowment for Democracy, Pax For Peace, Open Society Foundation, the Dutch Postcode Lottery, and the Digital News Initiative. 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 Geospacial Data" and "How to Identify Burnt Villages by Satellite Imagery".
Higgins told Polygraph.info that grants from the NED and OSF pay for Bellingcat programs to help journalists and researchers in their investigations. He further clarified that "Most our funding from grants (i.e. NED, OSF etc.) covers stuff that isn't related to investigating anything Russia related."
War in eastern Ukraine
On 21 December 2016, a report by Bellingcat was published which analyses the use of Russian artillery in the summer of 2014 against Ukrainian villages.
On July 17, 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 blamed the flight's destruction on Ukrainian forces 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 Spanish air traffic controller in Kiev gave interviews that stated that two Ukrainian fighter jets followed the Malaysian plane but the Spanish embassy later said that there was no Spanish air traffic controller at either of Kiev'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 November 9, 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 July 17 to the downing of the MH17 flight. The 35 page report, including photographs and maps, details the movements of the Buk in eastern Ukraine on July 17, 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 July 17. This report was later echoed by the Dutch-led international joint investigation team. 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 maintained 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.
On December 20, 2017, Bellingcat published an article focusing on a section of the 2017 Intelligence and Security Committee report, which categorically stated that the British stance on the MH17 incident was that Russian forces were behind the orchestration and implementation of a plan to shoot down an aircraft. Whether the target was the MH17 passenger jet is not defined.
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 armor they utilize, as well as news that would normally go unreported by the mainstream media. Bellingcat utilizes a network of contributors who specialize 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 extensive 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 the use of cluster munitions were being used against the New Syrian Army, in clear violation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. 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.
Bellingcat also does extensive reporting into attacks that are not openly claimed by combatants.
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 stating that it believed 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 soon 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 a great 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.
In response to Bellingcat reports on the Skripal poisoning, Russian officials claimed without evidence that Bellingcat is a front for foreign intelligence services and that Bellingcat publishes falsified information. Russian media have claimed that Bellingcat is funded by the U.S. government to undermine Russia and other NATO adversaries.
Christchurch mosque shootings
Following the Christchurch mosque shootings, 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 claims 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 provided valuable assistance to the BBC's Africa Eye investigation of the killing of two women and their children by members of the Cameroonian Army. As a result of this investigation, the US withdrew $17 million in funding for the Cameroonian Army 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, Bellingcat, in cooperation with The New York Times, used open-source videos to determine that most likely Iran shot down the airplane with a surface to air missile.
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad of 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 Tow Center for Digital Journalism, the Poynter Institute and scholars of journalism have recommended Bellingcat guides on how to conduct open-source investigations to journalists and to journalism students.
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 2019, Bellingcat and the Internet publication The Insider (Russia) received the Investigative Reporting Award from the European Press Prize for identifying the two men who allegedly poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Bellingcat received a €500,000 cash prize from the Nationale Postcode Loterij of The Netherlands; it used these funds to open a new office in The Hague. Bellingcat and Newsy received Scripps Howard Award for Innovation in investigative journalism that sheds light on international conflict.
In 2020, Bellingcat received the Machiavelli Prize from the Machiavelli Foundation in the Netherlands. Bellingcat and Newsy were nominated for News & Documentary Emmy Award in the category Outstanding New Approaches: Current News.
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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