The New York Times, the BBC and the Daily Beast have all collaborated with Bellingcat, an open source intelligence investigation group founded in 2014. Two of the group’s researchers, Christiaan Triebert and Benjamin Strick, have honed their investigative skills in Groningen.
Bellingcat’s investigations have shed light on the shooting down of flight MH17, the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the identities of the Russian agents who poisoned Sergey Skripal and his daughter, Julia, among dozens of other major global stories. The name of the group, which was founded by British journalist Eliot Higgins in 2014, is also its mission statement: it alludes to a fable by Aesop “about a group of mice who decide to put a bell on a stealthy cat to expose its presence.”
If all goes according to plan, the research group will open its first official branch location outside of the United Kingdom in The Hague. Once the Dutch division opens, the group is planning to closely collaborate with the International Criminal Court in connection with Bellingcat’s previous and ongoing investigations into activities in Yemen, Syria and Libya.
Groningen and Leeuwarden
Given Bellingcat’s strong ties to the Netherlands in general, and northern Netherlands in particular, opening up a Dutch branch makes sense. Christiaan Triebert, who is from Leeuwarden and a graduate of the University of Groningen, is one of the most prominent members of the group and has been an investigator with Bellingcat since 2015.
He says that he was pleasantly surprised to hear that Groningen and Leeuwarden would both be hosting screenings of a documentary about the group, “Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World” (see box below), which will premiere in the Netherlands next week. “It’s obviously nice to see my old student city, my alma mater, on the list, since it’s where I started doing journalism with the Studenten Krant and the Universiteitskrant, and a little bit for the Dagblad and the Leeuwarder Courant. And Leeuwarden is my home town, but I had nothing do to with the screenings in the north”
Triebert is currently working as a freelance open source video journalist for The New York Times and also gives OSINT (open source intelligence) workshops around the world, teaching people how to use online tools like geolocation and reverse image searches for fact checking. So far, his work at the Times has ranged from North Korean tourist resorts to heat maps exposed by STRAVA users, to American military actions in Syria.
Open source team
Bellingcat has been at it for years, and Triebert is heartened to see the world’s biggest media organisations taking open source intelligence seriously. “I really look up to everyone [on The New York Times team] and I’m learning so much working with them. I think The Times has been leading in this effort. They’ve been the first major media – pretty much only media – that has set up an open source team and have been very successful so far.”
Triebert’s workshops and research often keep him on the road and away from the Netherlands, but he was back on Dutch soil in early November. While he was here, he travelled down to Hilversum to appear on the popular Dutch evening talk show De Wereld Draait Door and talk about one of Bellingcat’s most recent investigations with The New York Times: the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. Step by step, Triebert laid out how Bellingcat determined the identities of several suspects and, in multiple cases, how closely connected they are to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman by using flight details, LinkedIn profiles and photographs of the prince’s recent trips to Europe and the United States.
Turkey named Maher Mutreb as part of a team of Saudi agents who assassinated Jamal Khashoggi. Photos show that Mr. Mutreb has traveled extensively with the Saudi crown prince, perhaps as a bodyguard. https://t.co/W69QNgrZw8 pic.twitter.com/nBRSOlWmGa
— The New York Times (@nytimes) October 17, 2018
Triebert will actually be in the country during the Groningen premiere of the film, but for a different occasion: he will be recording an episode of DWDD University, a series of public lectures to be broadcast on Dutch national television. Even though Triebert has led workshops and is a visiting lecturer at the College of Europe, he is actually the only non-professor in the line-up for the series (which will feature another northern native, Nobel Prize winner professor Ben Feringa). “I got a free upgrade to professor without doing a PhD, so that’s obviously fake news”, he says jokingly.
Although his investigations thus far have primarily been focused on other countries, Triebert and Bellingcat previously worked with Dutch broadcaster KRO NCRV about the Dutch arms trade. Once the Dutch branch is up and running, the group wants to collaborate with universities and local contributors to apply the OSINT approach within the Netherlands – including the north. “Maybe the gas and NAM crisis might be worth having a look at to see what can be found, but 9 times out of 10 that we do investigations, we find nothing. Who knows what we’re going to find.”
Triebert is not Bellingcat’s only source in the north. Benjamin Strick, who is originally from Australia, lives and works in Groningen, and contributed to a recent high-profile Bellingcat investigation in collaboration with the BBC into several killings n Cameroon. Strick and other researchers analysed the angle of the sun, the shape of the local mountain ranges, the uniforms and nicknames of the men in the video footage to identify the killers.
In July 2018, a horrifying video began to circulate on social media.
2 women & 2 young children are led away by a group of soldiers. They are blindfolded, forced to the ground, and shot 22 times. #BBCAfricaEye investigated this atrocity. This is what we found… pic.twitter.com/oFEYnTLT6z
— BBC News Africa (@BBCAfrica) September 24, 2018
Strick has been working as an open source analyst since 2016, and his previous job experience as lawyer and a soldier have informed his investigative efforts. “When I was a lawyer, we’d do background checks because some people are just bullshitting you, so it’s always better to check social media. The legal field is a big place to apply open source.”
Strick’s specialisation is satellite imagery, which he says also has countless applications. Beyond increasing accountability and transparency in war zones, Strick says that environmental monitoring really benefits from OSINT as well, from glacier melt to growing windfarm footprints. One of his preferred tools is a site called Sentinel Hub, which has slightly lower resolution imagery than Google Earth, but it is updated more frequently and is free.
He estimates that he is presently involved with more than 40 different investigations online, many being carried out in Twitter direct message chains and Slack threads, and Strick says that is how the BBC got involved with the Cameroon case: one of the Twitter users in the conversation worked there and got Strick to help create methodical explanatory videos of the verification process. He compares the work of open source verification to playing “Guess Who”: “It’s just clicking the tiles down until you have 10 or so left and then nit picking through them.”
He also teaches workshops and is frequently on the road: Strick will be instructing students in Italy on how to trace arms sales in December. He says that he is glad to see that Bellingcat’s work is being embraced by traditional media, and he is not surprised that The Netherlands has been chosen as the first branch. “I’m thoroughly impressed with the amount of Dutchies who are true opens source professionals”, he says. “I don’t know what it is, but the Netherlands really pioneered it.”
|Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World
Bellingcat’s ground-breaking, tech-focused approach to journalism is the subject of a new documentary: “Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World”. Directed by Hans Pool and co-produced by Submarine and VPRO, the film seeks to answer the question: as traditional journalism faces time and budgetary constraints, can Bellingcat serve as an alternative? The documentary will premiere on the 16th of November at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and will also be screened at 20 theatres across the country, including Groningen and Leeuwarden.
Leeuwarden: Slieker (Wilhelminaplein 92), Friday, 16 November, 9 p.m. – tickets are 9.50 euros.
Groningen: Groninger Forum (Hereplein 73), Saturday, 24 November, 7:30 p.m. – tickets are 6 euros. The Groningen screening will also have a featured speaker following the film.
What is Triebert’s view on Bellingcat’s place in the modern media landscape? The group is rapidly becoming a household name, at least within media circles, but it had very humble financial beginnings. “My first year was completely voluntary”, he says. “The piece I did on the Turkish coup attempt, which won the European press prize in 2017, the innovation award, was solely voluntary.”
Nowadays, the group has three streams of income: donations and crowdfunding; workshops; and applying for external funding. The latter is how the group is hoping to finance their branch in The Hague: “We’re making a larger proposal for the Dutch Post Code Lottery, which will hopefully work out. Having these independent income streams has resulted in going from 4 people being paid to 10 people getting paid full wages, so that’s pretty cool.”