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NY Times, Oct. 10, 2018
Armchair Investigators at Front of British Inquiry Into Spy Poisoning
By Michael Schwirtz and Ellen Barry
Inside a packed, heavily guarded room in the House of Commons, reporters
gathered for an update on Tuesday about the suspects involved in the
poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain this year.
If the subject matter was unusual, so were the people doing the briefing.
They were not prosecutors or counterintelligence officers or even
spokesmen from Downing Street. Rather, they were researchers from
Bellingcat, an investigative group founded by Eliot Higgins, 39, a
blogger who began by posting on a laptop from his apartment while
looking after his infant daughter.
Over the past month, Bellingcat has published a series of reports
unmasking the Russian men who the British say traveled to Salisbury in
March, poisoning a former spy, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia.
The experience has been jarring for British officials — who, in some
cases, seem to have learned of disclosures not long before the general
public — and for Russian officials, who have expressed suspicion that
Bellingcat is a front for Western spy agencies.
“This is a new frontier in terms of internet activism, or internet
research,” said Jonathan Eyal, associate director of the Royal United
Services Institute, a security and defense policy group. “What you
witnessed in the House of Parliament is a blurring of distinctions:
States are increasingly losing their monopoly over spying. Now it
belongs to anyone who has the brains, the spunk and the technological
At Tuesday’s briefing, which was introduced by Bob Seely, a British
member of Parliament, Bellingcat researchers gave out new details about
Aleksandr E. Mishkin, whom the group identified on Monday as one of the
two men who carried out the attack on Mr. Skripal in March.
The internet sleuths offered the sort of details rarely available from
state officials, describing an increasingly risky game of cat-and-mouse
with the Russian government.
When Bellingcat investigators mass-mailed queries to “hundreds and
hundreds” of Dr. Mishkin’s medical school classmates, they said, the
vast majority responded swiftly, saying they had never heard of him. But
two alumni said they knew him. One added that “everybody from his
department was contacted two weeks ago, and told not to disclose
anything about him,” said Christo Grozev, who oversees Bellingcat’s
Ukraine and Russia probes.
Russia took note, three days ago, when Bellingcat announced it would
reveal Dr. Mishkin’s identity at the briefing Tuesday, Mr. Grozev said.
Dr. Mishkin’s grandmother was told to leave her village abruptly, he said.
But a reporter sent to the village found seven residents who would
confirm his identity. His grandmother was so proud of Dr. Mishkin, a
recipient of the prestigious Hero of the Russian Federation award, that
she displayed a photograph of him receiving the award from President
Vladimir V. Putin, neighbors told Bellingcat.
Bellingcat has previously avoided sending its Russia-based personnel on
work that targets the Russian military intelligence service, known as
the G.R.U., which he said “would be the part of the government that
would be the most vengeful and the most dangerous.”
This time, “they insisted,” he said. “They really wanted to be part of it.”
Bellingcat has withheld some information its researchers felt could put
their Russian colleagues in danger, Mr. Higgins said in an interview.
“The sources we’re using we’re trying to protect them,” Mr. Higgins said.
Bellingcat was founded in July 2014, three days before a surface-to-air
missile blew a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet out of the sky over
Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Russia and Ukraine, locked in
conflict over a separatist Ukrainian region, blamed each other for the
tragedy. Initially, Mr. Higgins said he approached his investigation
“with an open mind.”
“Ukraine was not a conflict I was looking at and didn’t have a lot of
knowledge of it,” he said.
Using videos and photos gathered online, he and a group of investigators
were eventually able to identify the mobile launcher that fired the
missile that struck the passenger jet and trace its movement from Russia
into rebel-held Ukrainian territory in the period before the jet was downed.
The group has since identified two Russian military intelligence
commanders possibly involved in overseeing the delivery of the missile
launcher to Ukranian rebel territory.
A consortium of international investigators that includes prosecutors
from the Netherlands and Malaysia and others has backed up many of
Bellingcat’s findings, and at one point interviewed Mr. Higgins as a
Mr. Higgins, who briefly worked as a payments officer at a women’s
underwear company, first gained attention for his meticulous reporting
on the war in Syria, blogging under the name Brown Moses. Bellingcat now
has 10 full-time employees as well as about a dozen volunteers around
the world, and it receives funding through a mix of grants from
organizations like the Open Society Foundation and workshops where
students pay $2,500 for a five-day crash course in open-source
The workshops draw a mix of journalists, government investigators and,
sometimes, law enforcement officials. Mr. Higgins said he once had an
intelligence officer make a recruiting pitch at one of his workshops,
something he frowns upon.
“I’ve asked people not to recruit anyone to spy,” he said.
British authorities have so far refused to comment on Bellingcat’s
investigation into the Skripal poisoning suspects, or reveal any new
details about the case. The Russian government has claimed the two men
were sports nutritionists who traveled to Mr. Skripal’s adopted
hometown, Salisbury, England, on a snowy weekend in early March to
admire its famous gothic cathedral.
Russian authorities have made no secret of their contempt for Bellingcat.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry called Bellingcat’s revelations about the
Russian hit men “criminal investigative activity,” and a senior Russian
diplomat at the United Nations recently referred to its researchers as
“boorish and arrogant uncouth goons.”
In a statement issued on Tuesday, Russia’s embassy in Britain said it
would discuss the details revealed by Bellingcat only with the British
authorities through official channels.
“If information continues to flow in the form of media leaks with
references to anonymous sources and investigations by NGOs (even though
they have obvious ties with secret services), this will only confirm
that the British authorities have no intention to pursue investigation
within the framework of international law,” the embassy statement said.
As part of its investigation into the Salisbury poisoning suspects,
Bellingcat dipped into Russia’s vast market for stolen data. The first
clues to the true identities of the two men came from passport data that
could have come from a Russian government bureaucrat, who was either
sympathetic to Bellingcat’s cause, or possibly paid off.
Asked about the motivations of such sources, Mr. Higgins said, “I’m
pretty sure it’s mainly about the money,” though he insisted Bellingcat
itself was not paying anyone for information.
Bellingcat’s disclosure of the identity of the first poisoning suspect,
Col. Anatoly V. Chepiga, came just over a week before Dutch, English and
American authorities unveiled details about an apparently botched
operation by four other G.R.U. officers to hack into computers at the
headquarters of the world’s chemical weapons watchdog.
Included among the materials published by investigators was an airport
taxi receipt showing the men had been picked up outside a G.R.U.
barracks, as well as a photo of a bag filled with empty Heineken beer
cans the men apparently drank while on the job.
Researchers from Bellingcat immediately began analyzing the newly
released information. Within hours they discovered the name of one of
the outed G.R.U. officers in a database of car registrations.
The officer, Alexey Sergeyevich Morenets, had registered his Lada VAZ
21093, a cheap Russian-made sedan, to the address of the G.R.U.’s
cyberwarfare department in the Moscow suburbs. By plugging in that
address into the database, the researchers then discovered the names,
passport numbers and birth dates of 305 people who had registered
vehicles to the same location.
With a few keystrokes, Bellingcat researchers possibly gained access to
data on dozens if not hundreds of G.R.U. officers whose personal
information was available on an easily accessible database.
The finding revealed a “staggering amount of incompetence,” Mr. Higgins
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