We are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People by Eliot Higgins - review by David Patrikarakos

David Patrikarakos

Our Man at the Kitchen Table

We are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People

By

Bloomsbury 272pp £20 order from our bookshop
 

Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat, an investigative journalism website, and We are Bellingcat tells its story. Bellingcat’s approach is often called ‘open-source intelligence’ (OSINT). But, as Higgins explains, the term OSINT derives from the work of government intelligence agencies, whose secretive practices differ from those of Bellingcat. A more accurate description of Higgins’s work is ‘online open-source investigation’, which draws on information that is publicly available on the internet.

The account begins just over a decade ago, with Higgins, a college dropout, working in office jobs that leave him unsatisfied. ‘I watched politicians and celebrities and journalists as if they were another breed,’ he writes. ‘I found no place in the larger world, and had no prospect of ever having an impact.’ All that would change. Higgins is now as famous as anyone who investigates conflict can be. In this sense, the book is the story of an everyman who seeks ‘refuge in online video games’ being catapulted from obscurity into playing a role on the world stage. What makes this a tale for our age is that Higgins does so from behind a screen, without ever having to leave his house. As the 2011 Arab Spring dawns, he develops an ‘obsession’ with current affairs, especially conflict. Scouring message boards and social media platforms, he has what he describes as an epiphany. ‘If you searched online,’ he writes, ‘you could find facts that neither the press nor the experts knew yet.’

Bellingcat first came to public attention by proving that the Russian army supplied the missile to the Ukrainian separatists who shot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17 (MH17) over eastern Ukraine in July 2014. How he did this is worth explaining. Shortly after the plane was attacked, a clip, filmed apparently

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