Eliot Higgins (founder of the Brown Moses blog) tells us how, although from a remote location in a British town, he is able to build a rich picture of what is going on on the ground in conflict areas by building the right networks and getting behind the process of how news stories are put together.
Leicester might be thousands of miles from the fighting in Syria, but even form there Eliot is able to build a rich picture of what is going on on the ground by building the right networks and getting behind the process of how news stories are put together. He tells of what he has uncovered about the global arms trade, where mainstream journalists are going wrong, what impact the Brown Moses blog has had on his personal life and how he protects himself and his sources.
He also shares his thoughts on the hot topic of surveillance and Edward Snowden, and calls for more protection for whistleblowers.
You've been working for over two years now exploring the very specific case of arms dealing in Syria. How would you describe it?
It's been very interesting looking at the arms industry and the way arms are being supplied - Sudan are supplying arms to Qatar to supply to the rebels, or Croatia selling arms to Saudi Arabia to supply the weapons through Jordan. When people talk about the US arming the opposition, they think it's going to be American tanks and American weapons going into the country. But in fact it's probably going to be weapons from a third party, a smaller nation, maybe one emerging from a conflict itself with a massive surplus.
I've also learned little bits here and there. Before I knew nothing about the markings on weapons, how they have batch numbers, factory numbers and the year they were manufactured. For example very early examples we saw of cluster bombs were all manufactured in the 1970s and early 1980s, so there was a whole debate about Russia supplying cluster bombs to the government forces. It was pretty clear that that wasn't the case, but a lot of people were misinterpreting information because they didn't understand what these markings meant. Another example are anti-tank weapons that have been arriving in Syria recently, which have been stamped with a symbol meaning they were originally supplied to Libya. But if you didn't know what that stamp was and you hadn't seen it before, you wouldn't think it was that significant. For me a big part has been looking at the tiny details and building a whole picture. You have to know where to look.
There are a lot of theories about how in a case like Libya, a lot of arms disappear and go somewhere else. Have you seen much of that in recent conflicts?
When you look at the case of Libya, as the government was falling apart there was a massive amount of looting going on. I've seen photographs of huge flat-bed trucks loaded up to the top with crates and just driven off into the desert and never seen again. Then those weapons start turning up in other countries, such as Mali. In the case of Mali, people actually went out there and saw the different weapons being used, but you start to wonder where else are they turn up as there is a lot of conflict in that region. For example, no one is looking very closely at the weapons in Nigeria. If someone was doing what I was doing there, getting up close, looking at the tiny markings, we could map the whole network of the from a particular conflict.
I was interested to look at the new batch of weapons that had been provided by Sudan and have had their markings burnt off. So it seems some countries are a bit more proactive now about making things harder to track. Although it still didn't stop them being tracked, because usually a well-connected set of journalists from a well-known newspaper can usually find one or two people to tell them what's going on.
You have established yourself now as an international expert in arms, and as the blog has grown your expertise in arm recognition and trading has significantly grown. Is that where you see yourself ten years from now, being even more focused on that? Where would you like to be in the long run?
The reason I focused on Syria is because there is so much to it, it began to absorb my time. But on Twitter I tweet about what is going on in Egypt and other places. I am more about documenting certain events in the best way possible, and then making sure that documentation gets into the hands of journalists and people who want to use it can rely on what I am doing.
When I found the exact location where an Egyptian woman was shot during the protests on the 14th August, I detailed it because I wanted to explain to people who were in Egypt (journalists and others who use this information) how you can analyse this stuff and understand it. Because I want there to be more people out in the world who are looking at details in this way; not just taking them at face value, not just using them to win arguments but taking these details and gathering all the information they can from me. \
You mentioned that you started doing this as a hobby after your daughter was born. You didn't think of it as your profession, and you didn't know you would end up here today. Is this a profession for you now?
When I started the blog I was writing for myself, so I wrote about anything I found interesting. And then I wanted to improve as I was writing, because it was for my benefit. I wanted to build my audience and my followers because they are interested in what I am doing and what I want to do in the future. All the research and documentation, examining videos in detail, that's what I'm interested in.
I am very interested in taking the sort of skills I have learnt and teaching them to other people, especially journalists - people who want to understand how to use them to examine conflicts. I think the more people we have like me who have no training but who want to examine this stuff and are willing to learn and look into it, the better it is going to be. And if there were more people who could engage with journalists about specific topics, provide them with information they don't currently have access to, I think that might improve how conflicts are covered in the future. I frequently get journalists saying to me that my stuff is really ground-breaking and it's really helpful for what they are doing. I want them to be able to learn the skills I have learned, so they can go and do what I am doing for themselves without coming to me.
So now you want to focus more on teaching others. What would be the method or the set of skills you think they should know?
I think for journalists, the one thing they have a lot of trouble with is - I think that is key. They themselves can call on arms experts to tell them about the weapons, but verifying the videos is different. Things like teaching them how to use Google Maps to find exactly where something was filmed, or websites where photographs are published. I know journalists really want to learn this skill set, and there are not many resources out there that teach them. I like writing about the process I use for verification because I know people will appreciate it.
I think a lot of journalists are used to working in a very traditional way. But we're in a situation now where there are a lot of great bloggers who specialise in certain areas, and they spend all their time looking at that. So journalists have to be aware that they can rely on those people for information. I think there's a new movement of the 'amateur expert' - the blogger who wants to report on stuff– and I think that's something journalists have to learn to engage with.
What can professional journalists give to people who are trying report through social media and the Internet?
I think journalists need to learn how to interact with the people who are producing these pieces of information. They need to be a bit more active. In Syria some of the local media centres are producing a large amount of content, but if they had a bit more direction regarding what people actually wanted they might focus on that more. For example, looking at where arms are coming from, quite often they will film crates of weapons and they will miss the most important part, which isn't the weapon or the crate but the writing on the side of it. Something I've started doing now when I speak to people on the ground in Syria is to explain to them what I want. Obviously you can't touch unexploded weapons, which I tell them all the time. When they are filming something, they often film something interesting and then pan across and you won't see the most important part. So journalists who specialise in a certain area need to talk to people on the ground who are producing this stuff, and tell them what is going to be useful and what is not.
Where do you find a release for the intensity of the work you are doing? Is it becoming more difficult in a way because expectations of you get higher and the conflict is becoming increasingly tense?
I think by nature I have quite an intense way of focussing. In the past whenever I have focussed on various hobbies, such as cooking, I have done so very intensely. I think often I would get fairly burnt out after a while.
Because Syria is an ongoing thing and has been going on for as long as it has, there are always new challenges for me. But alongside that, there are other things I am looking into. I want to look at how to teach people to do what I am doing, I want to work with journalists in different ways and I am trying to expand what I am doing. I enjoy the intensity of the work I do, although I do find that because of my slightly obsessive nature I have to set time aside just to spend time with my family and not think about bombings in Syria. The weekends are about watching all the episodes of Colombo to unwind with my wife, and play with my daughter.
How would your friends describe you before you became Brown Moses?
I think they would have said that I was quite quiet, a bit shy. Just a very normal person. My background has always been in administration and finance; I've never had any professional interest or training in what I do at the moment. Everything I've done I've learnt along the way.
Just what impact has this had on your friendships, your social relations, your family life?
I think more than anything it has affected my wife and my daughter. Before this I had a very regular job, I was out of the house nine-to-five, but now things are slightly more chaotic. I'm always hoping to find some sort of stability, and that is why I'm hoping I will start some larger projects which I can work on more regularly alongside the blog. It can be very stressful sometimes, especially when I'm trying to have a relaxing evening and then suddenly there is a chemical weapons attack and I feel I have to jump on the laptop and start looking at videos.
The thing with Syria is that it's 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I go on a holiday and I feel I can't keep my eyes off of it, because I know when I get back its going to feel like a completely different situation, and then I have to go back through all the old videos and find out what has been going on for the last month. So there is a feeling that I have to be constantly keeping an eye on what's happening in Syria, every hour of the day. And that's because the blog isn't just about what I write on the blog itself; it's about talking to people in the press, it's about looking at the photographs and telling people what they are. That takes up a lot of my time, which can be problematic when someone sends you something really interesting at 9 o'clock at night and you feel you have to spend a couple of hours on it before you go to bed, when you've just put your daughter down and you would rather be relaxing. But as I said before, the intensity of working on something like that is quite rewarding.
How would your friends describe you now compared to before you spent nearly a year-and-a-half documenting the Syrian conflict?
I think my friends would be surprised at what I have achieved; being on television regularly, being on the radio and writing stuff, getting myself out there. The past year did a lot for my confidence. The thing is that I still feel that like if I wasn't the one talking about some of this stuff there would be no one else doing it, so I felt I had to speak up regardless of my own nervousness and shyness. It is very rewarding when you do stuff like that, when people are listening to you and you are gathering new information that changes the way people are looking at the conflict. A conflict like Syria is so complex that there have to be more people who are willing to become experts in certain areas and who go out there and talk about it.
How do you sustain this work? Can you make a living out of it?
I was very fortunate in March. I was offered a job as an analyst with an intelligence company but one of the conditions of the job was stopping the blog and I wasn't too keen on that, because I was just at a point where it was starting to get quite big. However I didn't have a job and I needed the money as I was just being made redundant at the company I was working for. So I said on Twitter that I am going to have to stop doing the blog, and straight away people started saying - “we'll donate to you and we will give you money.” I couldn't really take that risk, but then someone offered to donate a very substantial amount of money if I started doing a fundraiser. I started an Indiegogo fundraiser and that has raised enough money for me now to work until the end of the year as a full-time job.
What happens at the end of the year is a different matter. I am hopeful to have something lined up where I will be doing another fundraiser. But now I do consultancy jobs, I do media appearances that I am paid for, I will write the odd article... so it's all about taking my expertise, monetising it and basically figuring how to make money from it. In a way I enjoy that as well because when I am getting out there and talking about stuff on the TV or radio, it reminds me that I'm trying to get knowledge out to a wider audience.
You are engaged in this set of stores in Syria, but you are sitting in a very different space here in Leicester. What is it that you still think is important in being here in this city in particular?
The honest answer to that would be nothing - I could be living anywhere. One thing that is interesting about Leicester is that it has got a very large asylum-seeking population. I used to work with asylum seekers for a company who housed them, and this has certainly given me a much broader understanding of why people are asylum seekers. I would certainly be seeking asylum if I had seen anything like in those videos. But Leicester itself - it's a fine place, but what I do like is that there are a lot of different cultures here. I'm not big on monoculture. I've been English my entire life and I want to know about other things, and Leicester is quite a good city for that.
How important to you is that curiosity? What is curiosity for you?
Curiosity for me is looking at something, picking away at it and finding out what is actually behind it. It is looking at the news, but the news is in most cases just at the surface of something. There is always something behind it. I want to understand how the media works, not just consuming it at face value but understanding the process of how it is put together.
I will often have arguments on the Internet with people who are convinced that the media is in the pocket of the government, and they tell you how it works. Someone told me once that they know the BBC has the government phone journalists up and tell them what to put out, and I say that is an absurd notion because they don't understand how journalists work. When you understand how journalists work, you understand why the TV news is like it is. Journalists don't sit there waiting for orders from their bosses to fake a news story. They sit there and wait, being told to do a million things at once, and they have to run around, and they are exhausted. They are as lazy as anyone else is. They don't want to spend nine hours on something that they can spend one hour on. So unless they are a particular breed of journalist, most of them are just trying to get through the working day and complete the number of articles they need to put out, doing the work they are told to do with as little fuss as possible. When you start to understand that process you start to realise that this is why stuff is being reported like it is, and then you can start deconstructing everything, and figuring out where it's coming from. You start to think – why don't I have a look and see what I can find out?
Which blogs have got the most attention so far?
One of my most widely read posts was one about shoulder-mounted missiles which were captured. It was widely discussed and was quite a big thing for a while. In that case in particular you have a silver-looking weapon and it was an SA-24, which is a very advanced manpad. But it was actually a practice model, which no one realised until people looked at it very carefully.
Another popular post was one about an execution which the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham performed in the middle of a public square in Raqqa which they controlled. It was quite significant because it was really the first time those groups had done something in Syria of any significance. It was such a big event that it seemed to me like a coming-out party where they were saying “we are the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and we are here in Syria now”.
One of the more unusual ones weapons I have come across was something being dropped from a helicopter and no one knew what it was. When I researched it I discovered it was actually kind of a naval mine. It was quite unusual that they decided to start using those because they don't arm unless they go under water, so they are next to useless used in that way. There are only two videos of that happening; I think they probably just abandoned the whole idea when they realised it wasn't really going to work
Can you describe how you organise your YouTube channels?
I have what I call my Syrian channel listings, which I put up on my blog so anyone look through it. I've got a list of YouTube channels sorted by region, such as Aleppo, Damascus, Daraa, Homs etc.... It's interesting that YouTube only allows you to subscribe to a certain number of channels over a certain period of time, so I'm pushing YouTube to its limits. I also have playlists on various subjects, such as particular attacks or particular weapons like the hell canon (a DIY arm built by the opposition).
There are some videos I don't necessarily plan to use straightaway, but they are worth documenting. One example is footage of a rocket that the government forces have been allegedly using, a DIY weapon; I spotted the first video of it months ago, and then they suddenly started reappearing. Then on the 21st August there was a chemical attack in Syria with hundreds, if not thousands, of victims, and this was being recovered from the scene of the attack. That would seem to suggest that maybe these are being used to deliver chemical weapons in Syria, which is hugely significant because up to that no one had any idea what these ammunitions were. It's possible that the Syrian government are using DIY ammunitions to deliver chemical weapons, which is obviously significant. It's about making a record of stuff; even if it is not interesting now, it might be interesting in nine months' time.
What are the privacy and security issues that you encounter? Are there things you didn't think of when you started out?
Now I change my e-mail constantly. I'm a bit scared that the Syrian Electronic Army might target my blog and take the whole thing down, so I'm constantly backing up what I'm doing, saving things onto multiple hard disks, so it won't all get wiped out if someone decides to hack my accounts. I do so much online that it could be a huge problem.
I'm also very aware that there are quite a lot of people who might want to come and visit me at my house, so I make sure no one is filming my house and I try to keep where I am living vague. I've gone online and had my address and previous addresses removed from directory websites that list your details taken from the electoral register. Because I know how to track people down myself, using YouTube videos and Google Maps to find exact locations, I do what I can to make sure people can't do that to me.
How do you deal with sources who like to remain private?
I have some contacts in Syria, and I have individual e-mail addresses I use for those people. We use and proxies, and when you speak to people in the country they are very aware of these things and are taking their own precautions. But if I have a contact who is sensitive, I generally don't contact them through my main e-mail account, particularly with Syria, where there are security forces who might want to round people up. I know that security forces will torture people for passwords and use them to access their accounts, using their contact lists and I know the Syrian government is aware of my blog, so I don't want to get anyone into trouble because they have my e-mail address in their inbox.
I have also become very aware of the that comes with a document. I had a contact who was trying to keep his name secret, and he sent me a Word document where he had left his real name in the metadata of the document. When I went back, I told him that I now knew who he was, and to be aware that if he was e-mailing anyone he shouldn't do that. Sometimes it's useful to have that metadata, sometimes it's interesting when I have a sequence of photographs and the metadata hasn't shown the name but it has shown they were taken by the same camera. Sometimes I get sent photographs with metadata all over them, and I have to scrub the metadata before putting it on my blog, because when you put it on your blog it's not a re-uploaded image but the same file.
I need to ask you about Anonymous....
To be fair, they don't really do very much that impresses me. I think it is smaller, specific groups that do things that interest me. Anyone can say they are a hacker because they have done some really basic stuff, but they haven't done anything that has blown my mind for a really long time. The number of times I have seen them promise to release files, but haven't released them, it seems that a handful of people are doing all the work and a million people are on their coat-tails.
There is a good and bad side, but from a hacking perspective and in terms of actually getting things done, they haven't really been performing well recently.
How important do you see Wikileaks and whistle-blowers such as Manning and others?
I think they play an important role in exposing. I think there needs to be a lot more protection for them, because when a government wants to step on someone they can do it. With Edward Snowden, the reaction is as interesting as the information he's releasing. Things have become very authoritarian. Online some fairly reasonable people start saying - “isn't it great that they've arrested Greenwald's partner” - that they are stopping terrorism. But it's not, and there needs to be much more protection. At the same time, what they are doing is in violation of what they have agreed to do, so they have to expect there will be some fallout. But if you look at the way that
Glenn Greenwald 's partner was detained, that seems well beyond what is reasonable.
As far as Wikileaks goes, early on I used to really enjoy reading the diplomatic cables, particularly those concerning Libya and the Arab Spring. But I think Assange's personality has become such a part of the Wikileaks story, it has overwhelmed their work, and I think people are moving away from it. They see it as one man's personal crusade and it puts people off.
Ego issues aside, what do you think is the significance from a theoretical point of view?
From my point of view, I am all about using what is freely available on the internet, but no one is really looking at it properly. But these leaks are happening and some of this stuff needs to be out there. It's appalling what the NSA has been up to, and that no one was aware of it. People need to know about it because it's not just about America but about the entire world. It's about - who is reading my e-mails? How are my e-mails being stored? When you're communicating across borders with sensitive information that's not necessarily of interest to any government agency, but is still sensitive, it is worrying that people can read that and you have no idea about it.
You use a lot of generic tools like YouTube and Google, owned by companies that are known to collaborate with the NSA and the CIA. Is it concerning that your communication and data gathering is in their hands as well?
Perversely I find it reassuring, because it's nice to know that someone knows. I'm not gathering information about bombs because I'm trying to build one myself. It's not a subject I know a lot about, as I'm so caught up in Syria.
I think sometimes when you are dealing with certain information, you rely on things being secure. When something is not as secure as you think it is, when you're talking to people in Syria who could get in a lot of trouble, the US might have my interests at heart. But you look at Libya - when they finally took over the security buildings they found a massive amount of computers and software used for spying on people using communication like ICQ and IRC and e-mail. There are companies across the world who are providing this sort of equipment to regimes that are going to use them to arrest people and torture them. So understanding what these companies are doing is important because if these things aren't secure you're going to be exposing people to very, very serious consequences.
You have also been involved in the phone hacking scandal, so you clearly have an interest in surveillance and interception. How do you see yourself. People trust you and you open a lot of doors. Many of the people you contact are not necessarily aware of how to use it properly to protect themselves. What are the biggest concerns? How do you establish communication with someone for the first time?
Quite often when I talk to a new source, I ask if they're aware of how they are going to protect themselves, because it is sensitive. I've talked to people about using PGP, proxies, Tor and other tools. People are really ignorant sometimes about what information they are putting online. So I ask people how exposed they want to be, because they need to understand what can be found out. Going back to what I was saying about metadata, sometimes you have to explain to people that files are full of their .
I want to be ignorant. If someone comes to me and says they want to remain anonymous, I don't want to know who they are. If I find out somehow who they are, I feel like I'm deceiving them. So I want them to scrub the metadata before they send me stuff, or to use PGP if they are going to send me sensitive information.
How long does it take you to find out the 'who, when and how' when people post these videos?
Sometimes you just wait for them to send the right kind of document; they might send you a PDF file, a Word doc or a JPEG, and you immediately know who they are. Once you have the name, you can search who they are, you can find out that this is a really senior guy in a company, and all of a sudden you know everything you need to know about them. So you just need to slip once and you reveal every single piece of information. If they are a well-known figure, there will be a ton of stuff out there already about them. They're trying to control the information they are giving to you, giving it to you in dribs and drabs, but because you know their background and detail you know where they're coming from. That can be good, because you want to make sure that person is being genuine, but personally I prefer not to know who they are. Unless it comes to the point where that is key to being able to report what they are saying.
Where is it all going in terms of the ability to use new media to get to the amount of information out there?
I always feel that the intelligence agencies tend to rely on automatic methods of collection as one of their major tools. You look at something like Syria and there have been half a million videos coming out of the country, and there are plenty of NGOs and think tanks who are thinking about how to use that information and trying to make sense of it. I know they have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information, and it wouldn't surprise me if a lot of intelligence agencies are having the same problem; they can automatically harvest stuff, but when it comes to watching thousands and thousands of videos to get a good idea of what's going on, that's a lot more time consuming. The importance of this stuff often only becomes apparent after months and months of following something. They might want results quickly but when they don't come they think there is nothing worth looking at. They just want to focus on videos of jihadists rather than the broader picture.
I think for the online community and journalists, for a very long time the use of social media to get information has been dominated by people trying to score points in arguments, which devalues the information. That was one of the motivations for starting my blog. I get the feeling with Syria that that sort of thinking is becoming more and more accepted; when you put something online, there will always be people who will say you have taken a side, but there are also more people now who are trying to analyse a specific part of a situation. It's creating a much healthier environment for understanding a conflict like Syria.
And what is the impact on intelligence gathering?
I've been fortunate in that I've spoken to various intelligence people, and have been able to get a rough idea of what they are up to sometimes. It's always interesting when people say that different government departments are keen on reading my blog. It gives me an idea that the sort of thing I'm doing isn't always being done by the people I think should be doing it.
For example I did a report recently on a
Read Eliot's report on his blog here.
\ **Read more\
chemical attack in Saraqeb, in Idlib, which was actually quite well documented. But no one had put together a detailed report on what had happened from the information that was out there. Part of the reason I decided to do that was because I'd been offered this job interview with a private intelligence company and they had shown me how they produce reports, going through media reports and social media to produce the information they're providing. I thought – why don't I do the same for what I'm seeing in Syria, using the same techniques? I did a brief summary, a detailed look at the munitions used, the victims, the timeline of events, and there is now a very detailed report that didn't exist anywhere before. I have learnt a certain amount from the way intelligence is gathered and used.
Because you are working a lot with video and images, and a significant part of your reporting and documentation is visual, how important is the visual representation of data in contemporary reporting?
Because people scan through things very quickly now, being able to represent something in an easy and visual way can be very important. With my work, I have to do very in-depth analyses; sometimes I will do a piece where there are lots of videos and photographs with very brief explanations of what is going on, but in other cases I have to use huge blocks of text to explain very complex ideas and situations. So it's a very useful tool for getting very complex information over very quickly.
When I see I am always terribly impressed by it, because it's not something I'm very good at. People produce amazing flash presentations and websites, but I'm pretty basic. I just use basic screenshots and videos, and bits of text. But maybe that's another skill I can learn as time goes on.
Finally, why did you call your blog Brown Moses?
Brown Moses is a Frank Zappa song. I'm a big Frank Zappa fan and it was something I was listening to about thirteen years ago when I was registered for an internet forum and I needed a name, so I used the song title. That name stuck with me and when I started the blog, I thought the only people who would read it would know me from Twitter and the forums I take part in. So I used the same name.
I really like Frank Zappa. I like how he is a great musician but makes silly, stupid songs. Maybe that reflects me in a way. I treat very serious issues like Syria, but I'm happy to do something a bit silly sometimes. When Austin Tice was kidnapped in Syria it was terrible, and some months later the video appeared online showing Tice with his apparent kidnappers, but it was so obviously fake. It was absurd. I was chatting to the journalist who reported it and I posted a video online and said that it was the second video of Austin Tice's kidnappers, but I posted a clip instead from the film Team America. It was a dark joke but the journalist who had been writing about it thought it was really funny, because it was so absurd. It's darkly comic watching this obviously fake video and it lightened the mood somewhat. I think when you're working on something as horrible as Syria, you can get too serious and become miserable.
As the blog got more and more popular I kept the name, but when I was writing for Foreign Policy they said I had to use my real name. So that was a sort of 'coming-out'. Then when people knew my real name, they got more comfortable with reporting my stuff. This year when I did my Guardian interview it blew up when people realised I wasn't some weirdo in a basement, I was a normal person with a normal family.
First published on July 10, 2015