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Citizen spies take to web to uncover MH17 intel

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Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai

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An armed pro-Russia militant stands guard at the MH17 crash site.

An armed pro-Russia militant stands guard at the MH17 crash site. Photo: AFP

This post was originally published on Mashable.

In the frenzy to determine who — and what — shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a group of citizen journalists armed with simple intuition and an internet connection has been collecting information more nimbly than American spies.

On Tuesday, US intelligence officials admitted that while it's true that Russia has been arming pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine for months, no proof exists that the Buk SA-11 surface-to-air missile launcher, which Washington says took down the plane, was Russian. (However, a Ukrainian rebel leader confirmed that pro-Russian separatists had the Buk missiles.)

"We don't know a name, we don't know a rank and we're not even 100 per cent sure of a nationality," one official said during a press briefing. "There is not going to be a Perry Mason moment here." (A Perry Mason moment refers to a dramatic introduction of evidence, previously unknown to most, that seemingly changes the outcome of an investigation or legal proceeding.)

But a group of citizen journalists led by Eliot Higgins, who is better know by his online alias "Brown Moses," has had plenty of Perry Mason moments in the last few days.

Higgins, with the help of some of his Twitter followers, was able to pinpoint the location of a Buk launcher while it was being transported through Snizhne, a pro-Russian rebel-held town in Ukraine near the Russian border, based on a video circulating on YouTube.

The next day, Aric Toler, a longtime follower of Higgins, identified the exact location of a photograph of the Buk launcher in Torez, another town in Eastern Ukraine, using only open source information like the name of a store shown in the picture, and other unrelated YouTube videos filmed in the area.

Toler and Higgins were able to establish that the photograph was shot around 11.40am local time, using an online tool called Suncalc, which lets you calculate the position of the sun based of the time of day and location. That would prove that the launcher was in the area before the MH17 crash. (Higgins told Mashable that he checked the tool's accuracy by taking pictures of his garden at different times of the day to see if the shadows matched the ones on the site.)

Another crowdsourced analysis that Higgins assembled on Tuesday offers strong proof that a video published by the Ukrainian government shows the Buk launcher being moved from Ukraine to Russia through rebel-held towns. In the video, the launcher seems to be missing a missile.

The Russian government rebuffed the video, claiming it had actually been filmed in the town of Krasnoarmeisk, which is under the control of the Ukrainian military. However, thanks to other open source intelligence analysis, it turns out the town is not actually Krasnoarmeisk but the rebel-held Luhansk, just 30 miles from the Russian border.

"The Russians lied," Higgins wrote in his post on Bellingcat, his new website to promote the work of other investigative citizen journalists and to teach others about the tools they use. The site is currently raising money on Kickstarter.

These findings certainly don't prove that Russia was responsible for the downing of MH17, as Higgins himself admits, but rather provide strong evidence that pro-Russian rebels possess (or possessed, until very recently) a Buk missile launcher, and that it was close to the crash site before and after the plane was shot down.

"It's interesting that this launcher took a trip through rebel-held territory to the launch site and then up toward the rebel-held city toward the border with Russia," Higgins said.

For Higgins, this work is simple intelligence-gathering, which can help those on the ground investigate further. After he and Toler established the location and time of the picture of the Buk in Torez, journalists traveled to the spot and found witnesses that confirmed the analysis, Higgins said.

That would suggest Higgins and the dozen or so people who have helped him over the past few days know just as much as professional American spies.

“[The Americans] clearly only rely on open source information, or mostly on open source, yet they are not releasing what they're relying on," Higgins said. "It's like they're ashamed."

These investigations are a good example of what Higgins wants to do with Bellingcat: create a community of online citizen investigative journalists that can fact check or even unearth evidence using open source intelligence available online. Higgins has been doing this for years, parsing tens of thousands of YouTube videos coming out of Syria to figure out which ones were legitimate and which were not.

Higgins was one of the first independent observers to confirm that the regime of Syria's Bashar al-Assad had indeed used chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August of last year, and he exposed Syrian arms trafficking from his house in Leicester, UK. Now, he wants to support others who are doing the same kind of work, and teach those who want to obtain similar skills.

"It's important to note these investigations were done by a variety of people, showing the importance of making open source investigation tools and techniques available to anyone," Higgins wrote in a blog post on Wednesday. "This is what Bellingcat is about."

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