Day 6

How a network of citizen investigators is tracking airstrikes in Yemen

Bellingcat is using social media, satellite imagery and witness accounts to document atrocities against civilians in Yemen. It hopes the archive could be used to prosecute those responsible.

Bellingcat uses social media and satellite imagery to verify and catalogue attacks

Hafidh Abdullah al-Khawlani, who survived a Saudi-led air strike stands on the wreckage of a bus destroyed by the strike in Saada, Yemen Sept. 4, 2018. (Naif Rahma/Reuters)
Listen8:35

From an office in Leicester, England, Eliot Higgins has covered the civil war in Syria and unearthed information about Malaysia Airlines flight 17 that crashed in Russia.

Now, he and a team of 16 staff at Bellingcat — an international group of professional and citizen journalists who use crowd-sourcing — are turning their attention to Yemen, where a civil war has continued for four years.

They've uncovered evidence of targeted attacks on civilian infrastructure, like water treatment plants and bridges, and the misuse of European-sourced military weapons.

"We're hoping with this project that we'll be able to shine a lot more light on some of the incidents that are happening in Yemen when, at the moment, there really isn't that great information out there," he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins is also known as the blogger Brown Moses. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)

Higgins' work is gaining prominence in mainstream media. Last September, Bellingcat revealed the identity of Russian agent Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, who is one of three men alleged to have poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal with the nerve agent Novichok.

But, Bellingcat's work is going well beyond news articles.

The growing outlet — which has received grants from the Google Digital News Initiative and the Open Society Foundation — is building databases to cover under-reported conflicts around the world.

And, they want to make those articles, videos and images accessible for decades to come.

"My hope is as the years pass, we'll have a growing number of organizations using the processes that we're developing to create archives of materials in all kinds of different conflict zones but all in a system that's easily searchable and accessible," Higgins said.

Crowd-sourcing history

From their homes and offices around the world, Bellingcat's investigators gather smartphone video, images and information from social media and a network of international organizations, armed groups and citizens.

They then validate the crowd-sourced content through a combination of satellite imagery, geolocation and some common tools.

"Often people say, 'What's the most powerful open source investigation tool?' And really, it's Google search," Higgins said.

As they gather the materials and conduct research, each step of their work is documented and archived, Higgins says.

Higgins expects that their database infrastructure will be available to other groups with similar missions. Eventually, they will develop a searchable index of the various databases.

"That will allow organizations like, for example, the [International Criminal Court] to search a geographic area on a certain date and look for all the verified material that's been posted there by multiple organizations," Higgins said.

Fear of retaliation

Publishing and archiving this work isn't without its risks.

Higgins acknowledges that revealing a Russian intelligence agent in the Skripal case, is "obviously not something they want to have happen," and he says it threatens his team's physical safety.

But equally worrying for the Bellingcat founder are cybersecurity threats. The team has already been the target of email hacks and "Russian trolls," Higgins said.

A man is seen at the site of an airstrike that destroyed the community college in Saada, Yemen on April 12, 2018. (Naif Rahma/Reuters)

It's yet to be seen how Saudi Arabia will react to the Bellingcat's work on Yemen. Higgins says the website will start to release a cache of new evidence about airstrikes over a five-week period on April 22.

He expects there to be plenty of activity on his website when it drops.

"Attacks against Bellingcat often generate interesting datasets that people can explore," Higgins said.

"So, I expect lots of interesting data that's going to be produced in the coming weeks."


To hear the full interview with Eliot Higgins, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.

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