As Syria and Iraq have become increasingly dangerous for reporters, a citizen journalist has provided extraordinary information from his laptop in England about what is happening in the Middle East and in other dangerous locales, such as Ukraine.
Without any journalistic training, Eliot Higgins, who lives in Leicester, has scored some big scoops, including information about the 2013 sarin gas attack by the Syrian government and the Russian weapons used in the crash last year of a Malaysian passenger jet in Ukraine. He has used his computer to mine data previously available mainly to government intelligence agencies.
One of my students, Sarah Fry, brought his work to my attention, and much of the information in this column came from her research.
Mr. Higgins, 35, started as a blogger three years ago after he lost his job as an administrator for an organization working with people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom.
Although he had never traveled to Syria or Iraq and did not speak Arabic, he painstakingly reviewed photos and videos on Facebook, YouTube and other sources to find images of fighters and weapons in the region. He then used geolocation programs, such as Google Maps, to determine where the images had been taken via mobile telephones and other devices.
Mr. Higgins first used a pseudonym for his posts, Brown Moses, which was the name of a Frank Zappa song. He has since gone public with his name and puts his material and that of others on BellingCat.com, which comes from one of Aesop’s fables about mice using bells to warn about possible attacks from cats.
Here is how Mr. Higgins confirmed the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in 2013. After hearing of the event, he sorted through images of weapons on several hundred Facebook groups and YouTube files. He was able to determine that the warheads used in the chemical attack had red numbering rather than the usual black. He also found a different configuration in how the explosive warheads for chemical weapons were fired. Then he determined the precise location of the weapons and the specific size of the shells.
When Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh maintained that Syrian rebels, not the Assad government, had used the sarin gas, Mr. Higgins did a point-by-point takedown of the renowned reporter.
Mr. Hersh “is apparently unaware that there’s a growing body of evidence,” Mr. Higgins wrote in Foreign Policy, “and it very strongly suggests that it was Assad’s cronies, not the rebels.”
Other journalists have turned to the Briton to collaborate on stories on Syria, the Islamic State and Ukraine.
C.J. Chivers of The New York Times worked with Mr. Higgins on a story about Saudi Arabia providing arms to pro-Western Syrian rebels. Mr. Chivers publicly thanked Mr. Higgins for his input.
The blogger has high hopes for expanding his citizen journalism base through training traditional reporters and adding more data geeks like himself in his informational hunt. He said he realizes he cannot provide the political and military analysis of the information, but the data he provides can help journalists give a more complete story.
He told the Columbia Journalism Review that he would like to create a global network of investigators “to put the fear of God into the sort of people who have something to hide because they’ll know there’s a network of people primed to use it to expose what they’re trying to keep hidden.”
That certainly seems like a noble calling for a stay-at-home dad without any training in journalism.
• Christopher Harper is a longtime reporter who teaches journalism at Temple University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @charper51.
CHRISTOPHER HARPER: Citizen journalist scoops war news from home in England (The Washington Times)