Book of the week: We Are Bellingcat by Eliot Higgins
In a ‘deeply impressive book’, Higgins explains the power of his ‘intelligence agency for the people’
Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images
A decade ago, Eliot Higgins was “little more than a geek with an admin job in Leicester”, said Hugo Rifkind in The Times. Today, he runs what he describes in the subtitle of this book as “an intelligence agency for the people”. As the founder of the investigative website Bellingcat, it is largely down to him that the world knows as much as it does about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, and the identities of the Russian agents behind the 2018 Salisbury poisonings. Higgins started on his quest during the Libyan war of 2011, when he realised that there was a “wealth of information” available on the internet, which wasn’t being picked up by traditional media. By studying a video released by rebel forces, and then geo-locating it using Google Earth, he disproved one of the Gaddafi regime’s major strategic claims. That, pretty much, remains his modus operandi today – though he has considerably expanded his operations since then.
By 2014, Higgins’s one-man blog had turned into an online research group, said Jay Elwes in The Spectator, which he named Bellingcat – after the story in which mice defend themselves against a cat by putting a bell around its neck. As he explains in this “deeply impressive book”, it was its investigation into the shooting down of flight MH17 that made its name. Bellingcat established that the plane had been hit by a Russian Buk missile – and even produced evidence that the shooters belonged to the Russian army’s 53rd Brigade. Higgins and his collaborators had discovered more about the atrocity than any news organisation or foreign government.
The success of Bellingcat’s “transparent method” of intelligence gathering has shown that in our digitally mediated times, spying is no longer the preserve of nation states, said Luke Harding in The Guardian. “Anyone with an internet connection can do it.” Higgins’s book is a “manifesto for optimism”, and a counter to “cyber-miserablism” – the belief that “big tech and bad actors have permanently screwed our democracy”. By acting as a “firewall against disinformation”, the likes of Bellingcat could even lead us to a more hopeful stage in the internet’s development, said John Thornhill in the FT. Following the libertarian utopianism of the 1990s, and the “despairing dystopianism” of recent years, perhaps we are on the cusp of a third era: one of “steely-eyed realism in which civil society fights back against dominant state and corporate interests”.
Bloomsbury 272pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99
The Week Bookshop
To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.