BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS

Bellingcat and FSB Kill Squad - Russia

February 03, 2021 Dana Lewis Season 3 Episode 8
BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS
Bellingcat and FSB Kill Squad - Russia
Chapters
BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS
Bellingcat and FSB Kill Squad - Russia
Feb 03, 2021 Season 3 Episode 8
Dana Lewis

On this Back Story Dana Lewis interviews Eliot Higgins one of the founders of Bellingcat. 

Bellingcat uses open source intelligence to reveal truths ranging from Assad's use to chemical weapons to the identities of Russia Agents who have used poisons on Alexei Navalny, Sergei Skripal, and now Higgins says there are at least a 7 more assassinations of Russian figures that will soon be revealed.


Show Notes Transcript

On this Back Story Dana Lewis interviews Eliot Higgins one of the founders of Bellingcat. 

Bellingcat uses open source intelligence to reveal truths ranging from Assad's use to chemical weapons to the identities of Russia Agents who have used poisons on Alexei Navalny, Sergei Skripal, and now Higgins says there are at least a 7 more assassinations of Russian figures that will soon be revealed.


Speaker 1:

I'd like to, I'd like to talk about a very new way of investigating the way citizen journalism investigations are trusted is different than professional journalists. Don't believe me, here's the evidence so that we see the bigger impacts here . This is they've made sure they've got wind blowing like a time machine. Now we can come back to the day. You make 17 shoot down on Google earth. The fake media tried to stop us, but I'm president and they're not right now. They're winning. So we need people fighting against that.

Speaker 2:

Hi everyone. And welcome to another edition of backstory. I'm Dana Lewis. That sound you just heard was a YouTube video by an organization called Bellingcat, which has remarkably uncovered some incredible truths in the investigations ranging from Syria to Russia and even America by using open source intelligence, mostly they were able to show the Syrian regime of Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, their investigation, accusing Russia of firing and any aircraft missile, which brought down a passenger airliner over Ukraine stood up to international scrutiny. Then they have identified Russian agents who poisoned an ex Russian spy in Salisbury, England in the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, they tracked and identified a kill squad of FSB agents who were following Nevani and tried to poison him. And now one of their main investigators tells me more investigation. Soon to be released, will show the Russians murdered more people, including those who have tried to tell the truth about illegal doping by Russian athletes. This is not just another investigative news site. It uses electronic intelligence gathering from the internet that's called [inaudible] . And on this backstory, we talked to one of the founders of Bellingcat.

Speaker 1:

All right . I want you to

Speaker 2:

Elliot Higgins, who is a citizen journalist, but an unusual one. Hi Elliot . And you're in Lister , England. Yes. Right? Yes. So you've just written a book called we are, Bellingcat an intelligence agency for the people. What are the other intelligence agencies for a , well , I think they surf a power and they

Speaker 1:

Not really , um, one reason we're saying it's for the people it's not just about giving

Speaker 3:

Information to the public . It's about involving people in the investigation process itself. So things like crowdsourcing , uh , collaborations with other people, and it's folded hearings , a very big part of what we do at Bellingcat .

Speaker 2:

I was talking to somebody about doing this interview and I said, look, they're really remarkable because they use something called [inaudible] , which is open source intelligence. And that that person responded said, Oh yeah, there's a lot of great investigative websites right now. And people who go in and investigate on, you know, prison sentences and all of that. Look, this is very different though, because what's you're and you can explain it to me. What you're doing is you're accessing open source intelligence on the internet , um, and very sophisticated things like geo locating on cell phones, for instance.

Speaker 3:

Yes . So , um, basically we use anything that's publicly available information, and most of it is online because of the rise of , um, basically the use of smartphones since 2008, the availability of satellite imagery from places like Google loaf and information like Google street view imagery. We now have a massive resource coming from people of , uh, about incidents that are happening on the ground. So if there's a , you know , if there's a bombing in Syria, people filming sheriffs online, if there's a riot in Washington DC, and the Capitol building gets attacked, lots of those people share that online so we can collect all that information together. But we also have things like satellite imagery that Google street view imagery , um, other information that we can use to cross reference and confirm exactly where this stuff was filmed and start basically piecing together these kinds of fragments of information and revealing kind of the network of digital connections between them that allows us to have this view of actually what happened on the ground .

Speaker 2:

So talk me through a couple of these let's, let's talk about Syria and the use of chemical weapons. I mean, you were able to pinpoint the fact that it came from the government that these, these chemical weapons, explosions, chlorine, et cetera, were being launched by the Assad government. How were you able to do that?

Speaker 3:

So from about 2013, the late 2012, we started seeing more and more accusations of chemical weapons being used in Syria. And , um, at that time I was blogging under the name of frown Moses, after named after Frank Zappa song, it was really just a hobby. And I was just interested in what these videos were showing us about the conflict in Syria. And , um, more and more for your started appearing of these kind of weird looking munitions. Um , but no one was really taking it that seriously until , um , the August 21st, 2013 silent attack in Damascus where there's a massive number of casualties, but also massive amounts of videos published online. There were about 200 videos in total shared from that day, showing victims, showing the symptoms and also showing the munitions that were used. And these munitions, they were very odd looking things. They were kind of tubular. Um , they looked clearly like they had contained something and had burst open, but they also didn't look like what you'd expect to see as a conventional munition, but that lets her some people saying, well, these look like they've been kind of DIY kind of mash manufactured by the rebel groups with no real evidence to support that, but they just made that assumption. But I had actually seen these rockets before being used in videos by government forces and, you know, the videos filmed by rebel groups showing the kind of detonated remains of the same kind of missiles. And that was kind of one of the first clues that these missiles were from government forces. We then had the fact that sound was used, which is not something that's easy to produce. And because we knew a certain number of these rockets were used and the kind of container section of these rockets, which were partly intact would have a certain volume. They would have required to have manufactured a huge amount of Seren to fill them. And that process itself would require very complex kind of production process, a lot of very difficult to get materials. So the idea that some kind of jihadis in Syria had put together a siren in a bathtub and then may these munitions was increasingly ridiculous yet this was the story that some people continue to push.

Speaker 2:

Let's talk about Ukraine, July 17th, 2014, MH 17 is downed. The Russians of course, deny that they had anything to do with a 283 passengers, 15 crew killed huge , um , disaster. Um, and you were able to very quickly trace that to a Russian , uh, anti aircraft platform. And what made you so sure of, of the idea that it was Russians that did it,

Speaker 3:

This investigation kind of happened in a number of stages. The first stage where was directly after the aircraft was shot down where people started finding online videos and photographs of book, missile launches. And some of them were claimed to have been in Eastern Ukraine, separatists territory. So the first thing I did and the kind of community of people that kind of grew up around that incident did is trying to figure out where they were taken using the same techniques I'd previously used in Syria. So looking at satellite information clues in the photographs, and we could establish exactly where these were taken then, because we had the exact location . Some of these were taken at times where there was bright sunlight, which meant there were shadows. So if you could use that as a sundial and figure out the approximate time of day, and from that, we could establish a route. This missile launcher traveled on the morning of July 17th towards a site, which people had photographed. There was satellite imagery of that indicated it was a launch site. Now that started to give us a sense that this was the missile launcher responsible for shooting it down MHM team. But where did it come from? Was it one that was captured from Ukraine? Was it one that could be from Russia? Some people claimed now among these videos of book, missile launches were ones that were filmed in Russia in June, 2014. And it showed a convoy of vehicles heading from the 53rd air defense brigade in , uh, in Russia, in Kursk down to the border of Ukraine. And we know that because again, with geo located it , we looked at the 53rd air defense brigades website, which had all their book missile launches featured. And we discovered one of these missile launches had markings and features, scratches, dense painted markings that match perfectly with the markings on the missile launcher that we saw in Ukraine in July 17th. And we compared other missile launches just in case there might be similar matches, but none of them have the same level of matches as these two missile launches, one in Ukrainian and one in Russia. So the conclusion was it was the same missile launcher. And, you know, since we've kept investigating, we've discovered more evidence of Russia's involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, that they were sending tanks of a missile systems over to Ukraine. So in a sense, this one missile launcher was only really unusual because it shut down in an airliner, not because it was a ministry equipment being sent over the border from Russia to Ukraine.

Speaker 2:

So is this a new, I mean, that's , stuff's incredible. I find, right. And is this a new craft or you simply borrowing on the kinds of things that intelligence agencies have done for years behind the curtain , uh, but you are using public source information.

Speaker 3:

I mean, there's always been kind of satellite imagery analysis and things like that done by the kind of intelligence services, but what I think makes us unique and what has changed so much is just the massive availability of information from the ground and then massive amounts of sources that allow you to verify the information. So rather than just having one video and saying, well, we can figure this out from the video , you have one video that might lead you to social media posts that lead to more videos and photographs. And you start basically building this network of information around an incident . It's almost like if there's an incident in the real world, it leaves kind of ripples in the digital world and we're identifying those ripples and kind of following them back to the source to find out what actually happened. Um, and this has been applicable, not just to the conflict in Syria and Ukraine. I mean, now we're seeing news organizations and we're doing it as well, looking at the January six , uh , violence in the Capitol and using all this video footage often felt by the perpetrators to show exactly what happened, what these people are actually doing. And in a sense, it's , you know , direct parallels between those sorts of investigations and the investigations we do into things like airline as being shot down or chemical weapons being used

Speaker 2:

On the Capitol . Uh, any doubt in your mind that this , this was organized from the Trump administration, or is that where you're looking at? It's I wouldn't say, I mean,

Speaker 3:

Nice might be a strong word. I mean, heavily influenced might be the best way to it . I mean, there were so many different groups who made up that crowd. Some of them had their own agendas. I mean, there were a lot of people like the proud boys who have sought out this kind of political violence. There are people who were kind of part of the Q a non-movement who believed president Trump was going to save America from satanic pedophiles. And they , uh, you know, Trump had many opportunities to say, no, I'm not really saving America from America. You know , satanic paedophiles , this is completely made up, but he did it . And he kind of said, well, they must be good people because they say I'm a genius. And that kind of thing, there are all kinds of different groups that made up that mob. So I think it's more complicated than just saying, Oh, you know, they were , you know, it was just one kind of massive people who were kind of directed by Trump. Some of the people who were leading the violence turned up at, you know, the barriers with the police and broke through them before Trump was even speaking. So the idea that Trump was directly responsible for all the violence, I don't think it's true, but he was certainly a influence in the violence,

Speaker 2:

But your , your investigation will show certain people, certain organizations kind of on the tip of the spear , uh, crashing through the windows and the doors of the Capitol .

Speaker 3:

Yeah. And you see groups like the proud boys these far, right. Groups leading a lot of that violence. But once the crowds are gathered and events were progressing, they were getting angrier and angrier. And that's where you started seeing kind of almost organic leadership, kind of emerging certain individuals grabbing megaphones and shouting, you know, it's time to take out back our democracy and they had a whole range of different backgrounds. Um, but you did definitely see people who are known for violence for top targeted political violence who were discussing this beforehand. Um, but I think it's always with these groups and it's the same when we talk about kind of Russian influence on elections or whatever it may be. There are groups online who kind of self radicalize, and we need to kind of recognize that something that's happening on online communities , not just something that's been influenced by outside influences, like what Trump may or may.

Speaker 2:

This is , this kind of brings me to why I wanted to interview you because I am deeply disturbed as somebody who has worked in media for 40 plus years now about the internet and the radicalization and the misinformation on the inner internet, like, you know, Marjorie Taylor green. And you mentioned Q1 on and deep conspiracy theories and lasers from space. And I mean, there is so much crap, but you kind of make the point in the book that in fact, this open source , um, incredible thing called the internet actually is quite positive. And it has, it leads to more truth, not less, which is that fair?

Speaker 3:

I think so. Yeah. I mean, there's good and bad to what the internet allows us to do it . And it allows us to kind of work collaboratively, you know, do the kind of work Bellingcat is doing, gives us access to information. We can analyze. It's complete unique to this kind of last 10 year periods. On the other hand, the internet is also very good for people to find like-minded people who, you know , might think that the earth is flats or that, you know, Corona virus is fake or bill chip bill Gates wants to put microchips into people and you'll find it like-minded community. And it , Oh , it's not bill Gates apparently. Oh, he's moved on now. Okay. He's got a promotion in the world. Um, it's like , um, if you have an opinion and you're like, say, okay, the earth is flat. You'll find a website that tells you the earth is flat and reinforces that opinion. You'll find a whole community of people you'll find websites, celebrities, you know, people are saying the office , the is flat. Eventually you can convince yourself, yes, you have a fish really fat. And that there is a conspiracy against us by these kinds of mainstream folks who to keep the truth from us. Now, if you say, Oh, maybe the earth isn't flat, or maybe, you know, that you come up with some slight variance on what the kind of group think it is. You get pushed out that group. Or if you become too extreme, you find another group that's even more extreme. And that's true for all kinds of conspiracy theories. I've seen with chemical weapon use in Syria, there's a kind of anti , uh, kind of , uh , white helmets, anti kind of imperialist in quotation marks, pro acid pro Putin community who completely rejects the idea that chemical weapons are being used. And I've seen people kind of questioning, or maybe there are chemical weapons being used in those groups and then getting attacked force out of the group. And what happens is basically extremism. Radicalization gets rewarded by this kind of group thing . And that creates very dangerous communities. Who've stopped believing that they're the truth seekers. There's , they're the ones who only really care about the truth and everyone outside their group are against them that they're attacking. And it happens with chemical weapons attacks. It happens with MH 17 . It happens with Q Anon. It happens with Trump , has it happens everywhere. And part of that is because I think social media companies, tech platforms are designed around recommended content to people. They really don't even care about you as a kind of digital soul they can sell advertising to . So once you've sold your digital soul to them, they'll give you whatever you want to look at and what they think you want to look at. And if you're clicking on Q and on links, if you're clicking on FATF links,

Speaker 2:

No rhythm algorithms, which , which is , and then this dangerous echo chamber. So on the surrogate ScripPal case, which was here in the England and Salisbury , uh , you were able to identify the GRU agents , uh, who actually came here, traveled here, administered , uh, the Nova Chuck nerve agent to the door of the scribbles, I believe , uh , again, a pretty incredible investigation.

Speaker 3:

Yeah. And that one kind of moved us out of , um , purely using open source material because Russia rather uniquely as a country is it's both a police state and also an incredibly corrupt police state. So they collect a lot of information on their citizens and then the kind of people working in the bureaucracy, you know, make this information available in various ways. Um, so we were able to get information like phone records, travel records, there were all kinds of elite databases online that had been floating around for several years of house registrations. Just every kind of scrap of information you could imagine was either leaked or pot , you know , for sale on the internet. Now we would normally not buy information like that because, you know , we prefer open sources, but given the kind of unique fat , these were Russian spies who obviously trying to keep offline and we had kind of clues, we knew we could get these resources and look into them. And what that allowed us to do is using kind of details from kind of the scraps of information that were published by the government. Some information from Russian investigators, you've got their passport numbers. For example, we could find the passport registration documents for these people. And when we got them, they were stamped with things saying that like the phone number of the Russian ministry of defense and , uh, do not share information and all these kind of very official looking stamps that were different from what you would find on a normal documents . And we still into them more and more. And we discovered that , um , one of them had their fake identity set up using a pattern where they have the same date of birth, the same first name and the same place of birth. And by looking for this house registration day, databases, car registrations, and all these kind of this information, we matched defined , uh , people with the same data birth, the same first name at the same place of birth, and about a dozen people. We work through that list. We found 11 of them on social media profiles. They were real people and they had different photographs, but one person was a ghost. We then got his records and it had exactly the same photograph as the person who was on Russia today saying I was just sports, nutrition salesman a few days earlier. Um, so that ended up allowing us to identify not only those suspects, but then start exploring this network of basically a Russian GRU nerve agent assassination squad . And that led us to a further poisoning in Bulgaria a few years earlier for Bulgarian arms dealer, which involved some of the same people involved with the script or poisoning. So, and this is still an ongoing investigation where we're discovering more and more poisoning incidents, both in Russia and abroad,

Speaker 2:

Right? And th that's why there are a lot of parallels to what you were able to uncover on Alexa [inaudible] poisoning again with Nova chalk and again, with the security services. Although in this case, they are FSB agents that you've identified. And again, you've used phone records to show that he was under surveillance , uh, that those same people were there when he was poisoned. Uh, you've tracked them, you know, tell me if I'm wrong in any of this stuff. You've tracked them to a lab in Moscow , uh, where this Nova truck was likely stored, maybe manufactured. I mean, you have a lot of incredible detail in that investigation that has been very embarrassing for the FSB.

Speaker 3:

Yeah. So , um, the kind of common thread there between the GRU poisonings, like the script and Bulgaria poisoning and what happened in Russia was these chemical chemistry labs where it looks like when the Nova CHOC program Russia had, was shut down as part of their membership of the chemical weapons convention, the scientists were moved to these new laboratories. Funnily enough, one of them was claiming to manufacture sports, nutrition, drinks, like the script poisonous suspects that they were selling sports nutrition. So there's a kind of weird kind of parallel there, but , um, we've not only discovered that Nevani was followed by this FSB team of , uh, about an eight to a dozen members on about 40 different trips since 2007 or years, just not four months. Yeah. So it was a long time. And , um, it appears his wife fell in July of last year with a mysterious illness. You recovered fairly quickly, but when Nirvana was poisoned, they realized the symptoms were slightly lesser than the ones he had experienced. It seemed like a kind of threshold dose she may have received at this poisoning. We've also discovered the same, the same FSB kill squad followed free other individuals who died under mysterious circumstances, two of which had puncture marks in their armpits when they were discovered. Um, and in fact, the investigation that examined one of these , uh , victims was , um, the investigation to the blood works was actually led by the leader of this same assassination team who said there was nothing, you know , there's nothing detected in this blood. We're now discovering even more cases of , um, failed assassinations and successful assassinations of other people. And we'll be publishing about those in the coming weeks.

Speaker 2:

How many,

Speaker 3:

I think we're up to at least , um, one failed and two more successful assassinations plus several more suspected assassinations, but for how many,

Speaker 2:

When you add them all together with the ones, Oh gosh ,

Speaker 3:

Um, I think we're around seven or eight so far, and we've probably got three or four that we suspect, and this is over a cold

Speaker 2:

Elliot . Sorry, are they all political opponents of Putin's or what is the pattern now ?

Speaker 3:

No, in fact , um, we haven't published, I can't go into too much details, but one of the people we're looking into is not a political figure. Um, he's more of an arts figure who was critical of Putin for his arts . So it's not just about , uh , targeting people like Nevani these big opposition figures. I mean, the three people who assassinated two of them were quite small kind of level activists in the caucuses. One of them was actually an official member of the kind of official Russian opposition. Um, the people were looking into now, look , it looks like they were related to the Russian anti-doping agency and they died just as they were saying, they were going to reveal about the whole , um , anti-doping issue there. So it's not just about political figures. It's about anyone who's embarrassing, the Russian government. It's, it's quite frightening as well, because I think maybe in Russia, there's a perception. If you're powerful, if you're a powerful figure and you're going against the government, then you are going to be kind of talk to like we saw with Nevani, but this is showing more and more. It's not just about the big, important people. It's about people at every level of society. And I think in a way that's kind of more frightening than just being major political figures. It's like anyone is at risk. If you're critical of the government,

Speaker 2:

It's incredibly, I mean, it's astounding scandalous. Um, and the roads seem to lead to very high approval. The one thing that Bellingcat will not be able to give us is who gave the final approval , uh, on these and obviously in Nevada. And he says it was president Putin. Um, but we , we will never know. Right . You'll never get that far.

Speaker 3:

Well, I mean, one thing to consider is these units, they were getting , um, communication with their commanders and those commanders often around the time of these poisonings, we're in communication with much higher level people in the FSB who report directly to Poussin's office basically. So the idea that he wouldn't be aware of this is facile , the idea that, you know, he, they would approve of this is also seems extremely likely because just the high level of communication.

Speaker 2:

No, no smoking gun. Yeah. That's it, there's no smoking

Speaker 3:

Gun, but it seems so very likely based off the information that we're seeing. Do you worry about that ,

Speaker 2:

Your own safety now? I mean, you, you are touching some very ,

Speaker 3:

The sensitive issues you are, you know,

Speaker 2:

The GRU and the FSB of Russia intelligence agencies are not to be messed around.

Speaker 3:

Yeah. Um , you know, the more we research we, well , we understand that it's not just kind of big, famous, you know, important people that go after, but everyone , um, and you know, I've been spoken, you know, I've had the , uh , local council terrorists and police in the UK. Talk to me about my safety, give me advice on how I can be kind of more safe. Um, when I travel abroad now, you know , I will stay in hotels, but not eat any food in the hotel. I'll kind of go to the local supermarket and buy a sandwich rather than eating in a restaurant or anything like that. Uh, Chris [inaudible] , our lead researcher on this stuff is also, has to be very, very careful now because, you know , we have strong science that he's been followed in the past photographed , um, kind of, of a very suspicious activity. And again, he's been in contact with the local police frequently about his safety, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you're not being followed, right . This true Elliot

Speaker 2:

To you. What's , what's the future of Banca . Do you think? And what's the future of sort of people's intelligence agencies, because a lot of people have watched what you have done. Uh, and there are other organizations that are, I think, branching out and moving out in the same direction that they're able to do a lot of things that they didn't think that

Speaker 3:

They could do before. Yeah. And what we're trying to do more is build a wider network of kind of volunteers . So we're building a volunteer section for Bellingcat count where we can direct efforts to certain kinds of subjects we're working on. We're doing more and more collaboration with different kinds of organizations. And we find that extremely effective at kind of taking our research and bringing it to a range of different audiences. Um, we're moving into different areas. We've done some work recently on conservation issues, you know , uh, illegal logging and those kinds of things. Um, so we're constantly expanding into new areas. We're working now on kind of doing more , um, things like documentary production , so we can bring our, what we're doing to a much wider audience. Um, so we're continuing to try to expand, grow and reach more audiences and get more people involved with opensource investigation.

Speaker 2:

Incredible. And it's great to talk to you. And , uh , you guys have , you know, as a journalist, I have deep respect for you because you've uncovered a lot of things. Um, some, some remarkable investigations. So I look forward to more of them and Elliot , great to meet you and talk to you.

Speaker 4:

That's great. Thanks for having me on, and that's our backstory on Bellingcat. We will be watching for more revelations from them coming soon. Please subscribe to backstory and share it. And I now write a regular backstory newsletter on sub stack Dana Lewis dot sub stack.com, which I invite you to read like this podcast it's free, but you can also become a paid subscriber if you wish to. I'm Dana Lewis. Thanks for listening. And I'll talk to you again .