Chasing Spies From the Couch

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Eliot Higgins followed global events from the comfort of his sofa in the East Midlands of England. However, as Luke Harding reports for The Guardian, this did not stop him from analyzing what was going on. The digital world is largely open-source — anyone can access social media, Google Earth, Google Street View, or YouTube. Higgins found by cross-checking video footage with photos and Google maps, he could investigate what was happening in war zones across the world.

At home, and surrounded by his daughter’s discarded toys, Higgins unearthed a number of scoops. He found weapons from Croatia in a video posted by a Syrian jihadist group. The weapons, it emerged, were from the Saudis. The New York Times picked up the story and put it on the front page – an indication of how armchair analysis could be as telling as dispatches from the ground.

Higgins documented the Syrian regime’s use of cluster bombs. He discovered that government soldiers were tossing DIY barrel bombs out of helicopters, and that rebels were fighting back around Aleppo with Chinese-made shoulder-launched missiles. His reputation spread. He launched a new investigative website: Bellingcat.

When in the summer of 2018 two Russian suspects tried to poison Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, members of Higgins’ website, Bellingcat, took on the challenge of unmasking the true identities of the attempted murderers. The armchair detectives were successful, identifying the first assassin in a message on its website, and the second at a press conference. The identification led the would-be poisoners to defend themselves in an interview that was comedic in its lack of credibility.

They appeared nervous, shifty, under pressure, timorous, idiotic and craven. Unlike Putin – a grand master when it came to deceit – they were lousy liars. The pair insisted that they were not GRU officers, and that their real names were indeed Petrov and Boshirov. As for the curious events of Salisbury – well, these might be explained:

Simonyan: What were you doing there?

Petrov: Our friends have been suggesting for quite a long time that we visited this wonderful city.

Simonyan: Salisbury? A wonderful city?

Petrov: Yes.

Simonyan: What makes it so wonderful?

Boshirov: It’s a tourist city. They have a famous cathedral there, Salisbury Cathedral. It’s famous throughout Europe and, in fact, throughout the world, I think. It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock. It’s one of the oldest working clocks in the world.

Chepiga/Boshirov’s knowledge of Salisbury seems to have been gleaned from a cursory reading of Russian Wikipedia. The cathedral spire is impressive – built in the 13th and 14th centuries, the tallest in Britain, octagonal, with flying buttresses and scissor arches, and praised by Sir Christopher Wren and Malcolm Muggeridge as a marvel. Still, it seemed unlikely this spire had drawn the two spies all the way from Moscow. How also to explain the fact that the Russians visited Salisbury twice?

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