Tuesday 15 July 2014

What is Bellingcat

This week I've launched the Kickstarter for my new website, Bellingcat, which I hope will solve one issue I've come across again and again.  Often I've been invited to various events where people who have developed great tools and techniques for working with open source information have spoken in front of a crowd of eager journalists, activists, researchers, etc, who listen to the presentation, then go home and forget about it.  With Bellingcat I'm trying to do something that will keep those people engaged with those tools and techniques, and also show others how to use them.

Bellingcat has contributors writing for the site on a variety of subjects, but all using open source information for their work.  Over the last two years I've used open source information to investigate the conflict in Syria, but it's not just about conflict zones, with the OCCRP demonstrating the use of open source information to investigate cross-border crime and corruption.

I want to engage Bellingcat's contributors with the tools and techniques organisations like the OCCRP have developed, but also teach others how to use them.  Along with news and analysis, Bellingcat has guides and case studies so anyone can learn the same techniques we've used in our investigations, creating new investigators.

We also plan to have ongoing projects which Bellingcat readers can get involved in, learning about tools and techniques while contributing to the projects in a meaningful way.  In the coming weeks I hope to provide information about these projects, and how Bellingcat readers can get involved.

Bellingcat is as much about the readers as it is the contributors.  We only have to look at what's happening with Ukraine and Gaza to see why it's important to understand open source information and why verification is important.  If you agree, then please donate to the Bellingcat Kickstarter.

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Brown Moses Announces Bellingcat - Open Source Investigations For All

Update - The Bellingcat Kickstarter is now live, with more details on Bellingcat.  Donate £5 or more to get access to the Bellingcat website, with exclusive content and podcasts.

I have big news to announce. I will be launching a website called Bellingcat.

As a champion of open source tools, I cannot imagine bringing this website to life in any other way than appealing to my community of supporters who have brought me to where I am now. So, we will be launching a crowdfunding campaign on July 14.

Bellingcat is a website that triumphs the power and potential of using open source information.

It focuses on two main objectives:

1. It will bring together a group of writers and activists who through using open source tools have transformed journalism and solidified themselves as experts in their fields, such as (might already be familiar with these great people): Peter Jukes; my anonymous phone hacking contributor; Jonathan Krohn; Phillip Smyth; Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi; and more.

2. It will be a place that will attract others to come and learn how to use these same tools, techniques, and processes. Bellingcat will include how-to guides, case studies, articles, and other media such as webinars on the latest tools and technologies, which will aid others in becoming citizen open source investigators.

For me, Bellingcat is about giving other people out there, just like me, a chance to learn what I've learnt over the last two years by trial and error in one place, making it as easy as possible to investigate the things they are passionate about. I also want to help support the people who are already doing the same kind of work on a variety of subjects, and get them involved with the opportunities I'm presented with on a regular basis— new technology projects, contacts with all sorts of organisations and individuals who could benefit from their expertise.

I welcome any of your ideas for the crowdfunding page. The success of this open source endeavor relies on participation. YOUR participation. Please join me in making this a reality.

To be part of the Bellingcat mailing list, sign up here.  You can also follow Bellingcat on Twitter.

Please contact brownmoses@gmail.com with any media queries.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi - Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara: A Revived Iraqi Insurgent Brand

Logo of Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara
The name of this group translates to “The Honored City’s Brigades.” Its origins lie in the days of the Sunni insurgency of the Iraq War, though it is quite clear that it was an independent group. For example, in this posting from September 2007, it is identified as one of the “jihadi groups not rallying under any front,” contrasting with, most notably, the “Islamic State of Iraq” umbrella that included al-Qa’ida in Bilad al-Rafidayn. Like the Jaysh al-Mujahideen, Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara has begun advertising its military activities more openly on social media with the revival of the broader Sunni insurgency since the beginning of this year.

According to a media representative for Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara whom I interviewed, the group “was established after the beginning of the occupation, and continued fighting until the occupier left. After the occupier left, it undertook secret work, and when the battle in Syria began, some of the youth went to Syria to fight there, and a contingent within Iraq remained to prepare for the occasion to go to Syria, and after that the battle began in Iraq.”

To be sure, the media representative’s claims of secrecy post-American withdrawal in 2011 explain the lack of media material demonstrating a supposed presence within Syria. A contingent fighting in Syria hardly comes as a surprise if true. Tying the Iraq and Syria struggles together is not solely the preserve of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), but also articulated by ISIS’ rivals in Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (which has ideological affinity with ISIS and has openly deployed a contingent to Syria), the Islamic Army of Iraq, and Jaysh al-Mujahideen.

However, unlike these aforementioned groups, Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara does not see itself at odds with ISIS, as indicated to me in the interview in response to a question I posed on relations with ISIS: “Our program is the book [i.e. the Qur’an] and the Sunnah. We have no disagreement with any of the mujahideen. Our aim is the establishment of justice and a rightly-guiding Caliphate.” At the same time the representative expressed hopes to me for unity among the insurgent groups, saying that if such unity were achieved, they could reach Baghdad “within days.” The testimony thus related points to a clear Islamist outlook, though the open-source discourse does not place emphasis on establishing the Caliphate in the manner stressed by ISIS and Jamaat Ansar al-Islam.

There is no reason here not to accept the claims of good relations with ISIS. Though I have documented tensions with groups like Jamaat Ansar al-Islam and Jaysh al-Mujahideen (who, incidentally, have taken advantage of the chaos ensuing the fall of Mosul to launch a new coordinated offensive in the Hawija area of Kirkuk), it is apparent that others are willing to work with ISIS and even hail their efforts.

 ”Jaysh al-Mujahideen unite with their al-Ansar [i.e. Jamaat Ansar al-Islam] brothers,” as part of Operation “Kirkuk is being liberated.” 
An instructive case-in-point is the local Mosul franchise for the General Military Council (GMC), which is a front group for the Ba’athist Naqshbandi Army (JRTN). With the Mosul branch having previously hailed ISIS as “lions of the desert,” the GMC recently released a statement on the fall of Mosul in which it claimed that “the rebels of Mosul in all their factions- by God’s preference- seized complete control of the right side of Mosul [i.e. the side west of the Tigris River]…and all the political and security leadership fled.” The GMC also released some photos showing capture and destruction of Iraqi army equipment in the wider Ninawa province.

GMC photo claiming captured military equipment in Ninawa province, 10th June
GMC photo claiming seizure of an army Hummer in Ninawa province, 10th June
Though there is good reason to be skeptical of the GMC’s claims to have participated in the takeover of Mosul in light of past stealing credit from ISIS for new insurgent offensives launched in Anbar province (most notably in al-Zuba’ and al-Karma, with the record subsequently clarified in ISIS’ favor here), two conclusions are to be drawn here: first, neither JRTN nor its front groups wish to confront ISIS, regardless of true feelings towards ISIS, and second, other groups are clearly exploiting the vacuum created by the ISIS-dominated takeovers of new areas in Ninawa, Kirkuk and Salah ad-Din provinces. 

There is a possibility that the eventual arrangement in Mosul may parallel Fallujah, where there is sharing of the city between ISIS and other insurgent groups but as per a virtual agreement on ISIS’ terms, or parallel to the nebulous co-existence between the Assad regime forces and the PYD in Qamishli. 

Coming back to Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara, it remains to discuss the group’s area of operations. According to the media representative I interviewed, the group does not openly proclaim or advertise many of their operations, but from what can be gathered from published material, it would appear the group primarily operates in Anbar (to be more specific, the wider Fallujah and Ramadi areas), and like other minor insurgent groups its attacks are mostly limited to mortar strikes and hit-and-run style operations. This does not exclude the possibility of their operating in the wider area.

”Hitting army headquarters in Anbar.” Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara photo
As above
As above
Though dwarfed by the size and capabilities of ISIS, the case of Saraya al-Madina al-Munawara does illustrate the complexity of intra-insurgent dynamics going beyond the well-known rivalries such as the tensions between Jamaat Ansar al-Islam and ISIS, further eroding any government hopes of making gains against ISIS and the wider insurgency. 

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

Sunday 1 June 2014

Evidence Of A Possible Failed Chlorine Barrel Bomb Attack Two Months Before The First Reported Attacks

During a recent review of the many Syria related photographs I've downloaded from a variety of sources, I came across the following photographs from Muzeireeb, Daraa, posted to Facebook on February 11th 2014


A quick search through the Muzeireeb YouTube channel came up with this video showing the same bomb

It's unclear if the locals took a closer look at the remains of the unexploded bomb, and they may have (sensibly) decided to leave the huge unexploded bomb alone.  It's described as the remains of an unexploded barrel bomb, nothing too unusual in Syria, but there's something about this example that makes it very interesting.

Still from video
The front of the bomb has two slots cut into the side, and a metal bar with two long bolts running through it.  This is a very unusual feature which also appears in some of the chlorine barrel bombs used since April 11th

Bomb dropped on Kafr Zita on April 18th
The assumption is the bar was to hold the end of the cylinder away from the ground, so it would have enough room to release the gas contained in the cylinder on impact, with the slots on the side allowing the gas to escape.  If that's the case, then it seems likely the example from Muzeireeb was also a chemical barrel bomb, used two months before the first attack in Kafr Zita on April 11th, and hundreds of miles away in Daraa.  It begs the question whether other reported chemical attacks since (and even before) February were chemical barrel bombs, and how long these have been in use by the Syrian air force.

Friday 23 May 2014

Hersh's Ghouta: Conspiracy, Dismissal, and Denial

A guest post by Jett Goldsmith.

In blogging, expectations are lowered; not only in terms of quality, but in terms of accuracy and professionalism. Plenty of bloggers maintain a standard of quality and accuracy in light of their profession, like Mr. Higgins and the dozens of other remote reporters on the Syrian conflict -- who blur the lines between amateur and professional, and who still manage to break stories sometimes hours before mainstream sources, despite unfavorable odds. But for every journalist who has embraced the massive soapbox of the internet with open arms and an eye for quality reporting, there remain those who choose otherwise; riding on the coattails of legitimacy touted by reliable bloggers, misusing the unquestioning arms of the internet to inject falsehoods, poor research and shoddy journalism into what tries its best to be a proper field.

Enter Seymour Hersh. A once-famed investigative journalist noted for exposing the Mỹ Lai Massacre by U.S. troops in Vietnam. Perhaps one of the first true “bloggers” of his time, who chose to work as a contributor rather than a professional staff writer. But unlike today’s bloggers, Higgins and the like included, Hersh never truly adapted to the standard of accuracy which most would expect from a seasoned contributor. His career was frequently tainted by allegations of poor research and dubious sources. Claims he made, while typically taken on faith, had the remarkable tendency to be proven false. And nowhere more egregious were these lapses in credibility than his commentary on the Syrian Civil War.

In early April, Hersh released a report entitled “The Red Line and the Rat Line,” which called into question the role of the Syrian government in the devastating August 21st Ghouta chemical attack which killed and injured over 4,000 people, many of them civilians. The popular sentiment was obvious: Intelligence agencies and officials from France, Israel, the United States, Germany, Turkey, the UK, the Arab League and even the independent Human Rights Watch placed blame for the attacks on Assad’s Syrian Arab Army. An independent United Nations report, while failing to directly pin blame (as per its design), heavily supported the conclusion that Assad was responsible. But Hersh refused to sit on the side of credibility. Instead of following the authority and ethos of nearly every accredited world government and human rights organization in existence, he chose the path of conspiracy -- sitting in the company of such bastions of truth and knowledge as Mint Press News, Russia Today and Infowars.

Hersh’s main argument is one of denial, interlaced with effrontery and a small touch of paranoia. His claim is straightforward: Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda-affiliated rebel group, were the true culprits of the August 21st Ghouta attack -- and they were supplied by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan. Hersh’s argument is debunked and rebutted in CBRN specialist Dan Kaszeta’s “Hersh and the Red Herring,” and in Higgins’ “The Knowledge Gap - Seymour’s Hersh of Cards,” and even in a statement by United States National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden -- all of which are unsurprising. In reality, Hersh’s argument is no different than those made by the questionable creatures trolling the depths of the AboveTopSecret forums, or the murky waters of PressTV’s government-fueled newsrooms. They differ in allegations, sure: AboveTopSecret claims the CIA did it; PressTV points at a “US-approved false-flag operation conducted by Saudi Arabia in collusion with Israel;” and the like-minded Seymour Hersh blames Jabhat al-Nusra and Turkey. But their variances in blame are all connected by one factor: the attempted vindication of the Assad regime, and the unabashed embrace of conspiracism, faulty logic and dangerous assumptions to accomplish it.

Bashar al-Assad needs no vindication. The Syrian conflict is complex: both sides have committed atrocities, and the lines of morality are becoming increasingly blurred. For many, a rebel victory may not be the best possible scenario for Syria. But to vindicate a brutal, murderous dictator -- one who gasses his own people, executes the systematic torture and murder of detainees, and drops thousands of pounds of explosives on the homes of families, men, women and children -- that is the true crime against humanity.

As for Hersh? His credibility erodes at a stunning pace. He is long gone from the days of the Mỹ Lai Massacre, and even further from his brief period of respectability as an investigative journalist. Once heralded amongst the likes of Pulitzer winners and Polk recipients, he lives on amongst those of paranoid pundits and crazed conspiracists. And although serving as a sort of glorified blogger for the tenure of his career, Hersh will never meet the standards of any credible journalist, neither in accuracy nor in quality. His unabashed defense of a regime which has killed thousands of civilians and destroyed the lives of millions more has no place in any legitimate discussion, and it certainly has no place as an accolade under the belt of a once-famed investigative journalist.

Thursday 22 May 2014

Three Chemical Barrel Bomb Attacks Reported On The Day The UNSC's Vote On Referring Syria To The ICC Is Vetoed

Today, as Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to refer the Syrian government to the International Criminal Court, there's been more reports of chemical barrel bomb attacks on towns in Syria.  Following a reported attack on Kafr Zita on May 19th (videos here), Kafr Zita was reportedly attacked this morning and this evening, along with Al Tamanah, scene of three earlier attacks.  Videos of the Kafr Zita attacks can be seen here and here, and the Al Tamanah attack here.

The videos show what have become now familiar scenes in Syria of choking victims being treated in medical centers, but one video stood out from the rest.

It appears in this video yellowish-green chlorine gas may be visible, the first time footage has been shot on the ground showing the gas shortly after impact.

To me, it's difficult not to see three chemical attacks on the same day an attempt to refer the Syria to the ICC is vetoed as the Syrian government thumbing its nose at the international communities' attempts to hold it to account.  Given the flaccid reaction to chemical barrel bomb attacks it seems future attacks of this type are more than likely.

Monday 12 May 2014

Photographs From Daniele Raineri Of Chemical Barrel Bombs In Syria

Today, the Daily Telegraph published a pair of articles on chemical barrel bombs in Syria, "Syrian chemical weapons use backed-up by second investigation", and "Found: the bombs that delivered Syria's chlorine gas" by Daniele Raineri.

Daniele took a number of photographs of the remains of the barrel bombs, some of which were published in the Daily Telegraph.  He's now given me permission to publish the remaining 59 photographs online, the full collection of which can be found here.

The following pictures shows the remains of a cylinder that has a number of interesting features

This appears to be the same chemical barrel bomb featured in this video from Kafr Zita on April 18th

As I noted in an earlier post, det cord has been wrapped around the neck of the cylinder, shown below

It would appear the function of this is to blow off the end of the cylinder using the least explosive power possible, reducing the among of chlorine gas destroyed in the explosion.  One photograph may show an example where this configuration has functioned as intended

Another interesting feature of the same barrel bomb is the metal bar with two large bolt which sits in front of the cylinder

The same metal bar and bolt assembly is visible in a video from another reported attack in Telmens on April 21st

I believe the function of this assembly is to hold the cylinder away from the base of the bomb, so during impact the cylinder doesn't end up buried in the ground, preventing the release of gas.  There's also a slot in the casing of the barrel bomb, next to the end of the cylinder, which could be there to allow gas to be released on impact.  This would strongly suggest more effort has gone into the design of these munitions than simply placing a gas cylinder inside a barrel bomb.

More videos showing the remains of chemical barrel bombs can be found here, and the remaining Daniele Raineri photographs can be found here.