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Geek who exposed Novichok killers

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BOOK OF THE WEEK   

We Are Bellingcat

by Eliot Higgins (Bloomsbury £20, 272 pp) 

The desk sergeant Phil Esterhaus in the classic Eighties cop TV series Hill Street Blues would famously end each morning roll call with a warning to his officers as they headed out onto the streets of New York: ‘Hey, let’s be careful out there.’

These days every one of us needs to heed that as we switch on our computers and launch ourselves onto the internet.

One of the sadnesses of the modern world is that the invention that was supposed to open up endless possibilities for information and enlightenment has turned into a dark place of fake news and destructive conspiracy theories, a swamp in which it is easier to sink and drown than to find solid, reliable ground.

A glimmer of light is offered by an international collective of investigators and researchers who go by the odd name of Bellingcat — founded by an Englishman, Eliot Higgins, with nothing but a laptop in the front room of his home in Leicester just seven years ago.

Eliot Higgins, 42, (pictured) was a college dropout with no specialist training as a techie but ended up revealing the details of the Novichok poisonings

He became convinced that the truth can be ferreted out from the infinite spaces of the internet if only you know where and how to look — and, most importantly, if you refuse to take anything at face value, but demand corroboration and proof on every controversial statement and claim you come across.

The liars, the propagandists, the naysayers, the cheats and bullies can be beaten, but it takes eternal vigilance and transparency to do so.

In this absorbing and challenging book explaining his mission, he acknowledges that ‘the digital era is viewed as a wrecking ball, smashing journalism, civility and politics’. But, he asserts, with a breath-of-fresh-air confidence: ‘At Bellingcat, we do not accept this cyber-miserabilism. The marvels of the internet can still have an impact for the better.’

Higgins, 42, was a college dropout with no specialist training as a techie or a journalist, but, bored by his undemanding office job, filled his time first with online gaming and then, drawn to the intricacies of international affairs by the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, with obsessively surfing the net. ‘News was happening so fast,’ he recalls. ‘I wanted to know more.’

He began trawling news blogs and chat sites, message boards, podcasts, search engines, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and so on. From a plethora of openly available sources, he was discovering details about world events — notably the civil war in Gaddafi’s Libya and the so-called Arab Spring — that conventional journalism often missed. From these sources he could construct what was happening as if he were there — a war correspondent operating from his own living room.

Salisbury Novichok poisoning suspects Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov are shown on CCTV on Fisherton Road, Salisbury on 4 March 2018

Salisbury Novichok poisoning suspects Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov are shown on CCTV on Fisherton Road, Salisbury on 4 March 2018

He tweeted out his findings, posted them on message boards and published them on a blog, picking up followers who then joined him in his digital detection, creating what he calls ‘my community of fact-finding obsessives’.

One particularly valuable technique he used was ‘geolocation’ which, put simply, matches features shown on a video, such as a distinctive building or a road configuration, with the satellite image view on Google Earth. With this technique, the team were able to show with certainty that it was a Russian missile, not a Ukrainian one, that in 2014 brought down a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet over Ukraine.

Scanning through endless hours of video footage posted on the internet by ordinary Russian soldiers inadvertently disclosing their whereabouts, they eventually tracked the movement of the mobile missile launcher from its base in Russia to the place where it was fired. The proof of Russian culpability brought outrage from the Kremlin, and attempts to undermine Bellingcat’s credibility.

The Russia Today TV channel cast aspersions on Higgins personally, describing the rise of citizen reporters like him as ‘a dangerous trend’. Higgins’s reply was unequivocal. ‘They are right. We are dangerous to those who falsify evidence.’

Far from backing off, he formed Bellingcat into a proper organisation, crowd-funded by donations from research institutions and sympathetic supporters. It has a small number of paid staff but a network of volunteers, with no political agenda but bound together by a simple credo. As Higgins puts it: ‘Evidence exists and falsehoods exist, and people still care about the difference.’

At first, Bellingcat’s reach remained fairly limited, but then came its big breakthrough: it outed the Kremlin secret agents who, in 2018, poisoned Russian exile Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the nerve agent Novichok on British soil.

There was an international outcry after the attack in the quiet cathedral city of Salisbury — it left the Skripals fighting for their lives in hospital and led to the death of a local woman, Dawn Sturgess. But for six months Scotland Yard was unable to come up with hard evidence, while smug Moscow protested its innocence.

Eventually the British police unveiled surveillance camera images of two burly Russian men arriving at Gatwick Airport, travelling by train from London to Salisbury and loitering outside the Skripals’ house. They were named as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.

We Are Bellingcat by Eliot Higgins (Bloomsbury £20, 272 pp)

We Are Bellingcat by Eliot Higgins (Bloomsbury £20, 272 pp)

The Kremlin threw up its hands in mock horror. These men were nothing more than tourists. On Russian television, all doe-eyed, they explained that they were salesmen for a sports-nutrition company and had gone to Salisbury to gaze in awe at its world-famous, 123-metre cathedral spire. It was as if Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, was flicking two fingers at Britain.

For Higgins and co, this was a red rag to a bull. With just the two men’s faces to go on, they set out to use their specialist skills to discover who they really were. Digging deeper than ever before, vital clues turned up in a leaked database of flight manifests showing the details of the two passengers who had flown into Britain.

Their passport numbers were suspiciously only three numbers apart, suggesting they were recently made fakes. The two had also claimed on television that their trip to Salisbury was a long time in the planning. Yet the manifest showed they had booked their Aeroflot flight to London only the night before they left.

Deeper and deeper Bellingcat went, mining every possible lead, until eventually the truth came out. ‘Petrov’ and ‘Boshirov’ were not the innocent tourists they claimed to be, but Alexander Mishkin, a military doctor, and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga of the GRU, Russian military intelligence. Not spire-admirers at all but spies, sent by Putin to take out Skripal for daring to defy the Kremlin.

Predictably, Moscow rubbished the identifying of the hit squad, but the rest of the world had little doubt who to believe.

It was a major victory for the mice over the predatory cat, a fulfilment of the promise contained in Bellingcat’s odd name: its origins are an ancient fable about the mice who protected themselves from a marauding cat by fixing a bell around its neck so they would always know it was coming.

‘Be warned’ is its message to the powerful and the corrupt around the world of whatever political persuasion. Bellingcat is on your tail, wringing out the lies and ringing out the truth.

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