Piecing Together the Evidence: Open-Source Intelligence in Israel’s Gaza War: Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins breaks down his pioneering investigative toolkit (HENRY CARNELL, 11/24/23, MoJo)
What guidance would you give readers who are being flooded with this type of information? What does a well-investigated piece look like?
One issue over the last few weeks is, a lot of organizations that usually produce quite high-quality work on other issues have kind of tried to find answers where there may not be answers available. With the [Al-Ahli] hospital bombing, there are different versions of events, depending on which quite reputable organization you ask, and that’s a problem.
We’ve seen, for example, an analysis by one news organization that pointed towards the rocket being launched from Gaza. Another news organization analyzed the same videos and pointed to it being from Israel. Even good-quality news organizations are producing contradictory statements about the same footage. It’s not even an issue of disinformation around trolls and grifters. It’s a much bigger issue.
You’ve explained that it takes a while to get to the truth. What goes into a Bellingcat investigation?
If we’re talking about conflict incidents, like an airstrike that blows up a building, the first thing we’re trying to do is gather as much of the digital evidence that’s out there, like videos and photographs shared from the scene. Ideally, we try to find them from the original sources where they’re shared, but that’s sometimes not possible.
Once we have all that visual information, we do a process called geolocation, which confirms exactly where these images were taken. You can’t really trust an image from an incident unless you know exactly where it took place. Once you have that, you have a catalog of content of the incident. Then you put that into a timeline.
When you look at footage, you find other images of the same scene, and you start thinking, “What has changed?” You may start looking for munition debris, the shape of a crater, shrapnel spray, and other details like that. Establishing a link between that rocket fire and [an] explosion in the hospital is very important to do.
We also look at media reports and social media posts of witnesses talking about the incident—not to take them at face value, but to look at them and say, “What is consistent with what we’re seeing? What adds bits of information we can explore using visual evidence?” If someone says there was a rocket at the scene, or the remains of a rocket, then we’ll hunt for that through the imagery.
Using that process, [we’re] going back in time to the moment of the event to establish what happened—and, ideally, moments leading up to the event as well. And sometimes that’s possible. For example, we had one investigation into a supermarket hit by a missile in Ukraine. The actual missile in flight was caught by a CCTV camera just outside the building [in] two frames. From that, we’re able to identify the type of missile that was used. It’s piecing together all that evidence, understanding where it is in time and space, and using that nexus of information to start establishing facts and eliminating scenarios.
That’s not to say that if a claim is wrong, the opposite is true. That’s just to say that [the] scenario has been eliminated and we can move to looking at other potential scenarios, hoping that through that process of elimination, you come to one likely scenario—which isn’t always possible.
With the hospital bombing, there was a claim [that] it was a large Israeli bomb. The crater that was left was not from one of those kinds of bombs; it was from a different kind of smaller munition. I personally still don’t know if it was an Israeli missile or rocket or a misfired rocket from Gaza. But I can at least eliminate some of the scenarios. And as more information emerges, you can integrate that into your understanding of the events.