We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People

Eliot Higgins

Bloomsbury, £20

Review by David Pratt

In the first paragraph of his book’s opening chapter, Eliot Higgins recounts a day during the Arab Spring uprising in the Egyptian capital, Cairo. It was February 2, 2011 and the events that unfolded would become known as the “Battle of the Camel” because protesters near the famous Tahrir Square were charged by people riding camels. Those who charged were supporters of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Some were paid thugs, others released from jail on the agreement that they would battle the protesters on the regime’s behalf.

I was there in Cairo that day as a reporter and almost fell victim to the violence of those same regime-recruited thugs or “baltagiya” as they are known in Arabic. In his account, Higgins tells of another reporter covering that day’s events, who “never needed to take cover or press a vinegar-soaked rag to this mouth, against the tear gas”. Andy Carvin of National Public Radio had no need to do so because, as Higgins explains, he was 6,000 miles away, “sat at a computer in Washington DC chronicling the Arab Spring through social media”.

“I imagined myself flying high over Tahrir in a helicopter, looking down at the field of battle,” Higgins quotes Carvin as saying. “It was coming together in my mind – a situational awareness I probably couldn’t have achieved on the ground.”

Here in the juxtaposed experience of two reporters that day, myself and Carvin, lies the essence of what this book is all about. As a foreign correspondent on the ground in Cairo, I was representative of the “old school” approach. Carvin by contrast, was one of an emerging force of new investigators or internet sleuths who piece together stories from available data, a practice known as open-source journalism.

Higgins is founder of the online investigations agency Bellingcat, which, for more than five years now, has uncovered illegal arms shipments and the use of banned weapons. It has also revealed the perpetrators of mass killings and human rights abuses. This very accessible book tells the story of Bellingcat’s evolution and of how Higgins built his highly respected reputation from the most rudimentary of beginnings.

A dropout from a media technology course who then became employed in mundane admin jobs, Higgins in his spare time used online digging, trawling through public data and images to painstakingly piece together details of some of the biggest news stories of recent years.

That what he discovered had sometimes been overlooked by the mainstream media or deliberately obscured and hidden by governments and politicians only added to the value and power of what he uncovered.

Bellingcat was key, for example, to the investigation into the 2014 downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight over Ukraine which killed 298 people. Similarly, it played a role in identifying those responsible for poisoning Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the British city of Salisbury in 2018.

In Syria’s often murky civil war, too, it cast light on the sourcing of weapons and the targeting of civilians. Today, such is Bellingcat’s reputation that it has become the go-to online investigative source and, as the book’s subtitle suggests, an “intelligence agency for the people”.

But as Higgins says, it was back in 2011 that the Arab Spring first “raised what was to become the most serious news question of the digital age: verification. How to say if this stuff was true? How to know what you were looking at?”

As any journalist will attest, the crafting of a story based on publicly available data has long been part of the profession during the analogue era. But as Higgins makes clear: “Twitter was where they [reporters] emptied their notebooks, including facts I had not read anywhere else.”

Armed with these chuck-away nuggets of information, Bellingcat applies a new skillset in the age of ubiquitous smartphones and expansion of social media.

In clear prose that is wonderfully jargon-free, this book works well on many levels. Simultaneously, it’s a biography of Higgins himself and Bellingcat. On another level it represents a blueprint for a bulwark against the threat posed by “fake news” and disinformation that plagues our age. On another level again, it is an informed discourse on the changing nature of journalistic practice, so much so that it should be compulsory reading for all media and politics students.

Above all, though, it’s something of a detective novel laying bare the minutiae that help make an often opaque, sinister, and shadowy world transparent and understandable. As Higgins himself puts it, one of the guiding principles of Bellingcat, is that “the response to information chaos is transparency”.

For “old school” correspondents like myself, this book jolts us with the undeniable truth that newspapers are not the first draft of history any more, and social media is.

Unpalatable as that might be to some readers, the author reassures us that cooperation between on-the-ground reporters and computer-bound investigators means that together it is possible to “triangulate the truth”, in a time when the truth is under threat like never before.

For someone who has established a global standing through sheer diligence and a desire to find things out, Higgins is refreshingly self-effacing.

There is no flannel here, just fact – which, after all, is the bedrock on which Bellingcat’s reputation stands or falls. This is a book that anyone wanting to understand the times we live in would do well to pick up. Oh, and for those wondering where the name Bellingcat comes from, it’s based on a fable in which a group of mice protect themselves from a feline by hanging a bell around its neck so they can hear it coming. That tells us all we need to know about the value of early warnings.