Eliot Higgins led a team of online sleuths who proved the would-be assassins of Sergei Skripal were Russian agents. Matthew Campbell meets the shy Star Trek fan who outfoxed Putin.
Eliot Higgins does not mind coronavirus lockdowns. He has never much enjoyed going out, producing all his best work, his world-beating scoops about Syrian or Russian skulduggery, from a sofa at home in the East Midlands.
"When I was younger, I had this really terrible anxiety. It cast a shadow over my life," he tells me. "When I went outside I always felt everyone was kind of looking at me, judging me. I hated interacting with people." Things have improved since then, although he says he's "still not somebody who likes going down the pub".
Celebrity as one of the world's most influential internet sleuths has boosted his confidence. Investigative triumphs, including the identification of the Russian spies who tried to kill the defector Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, have turned his Bellingcat investigative news website into a giant of the new media landscape.
This is my first (virtual) meeting with Higgins, 41, a pioneer of "open source" reporting, in which data freely available on the internet is used to build a story. For all his talk of anxiety, and as someone who has repeatedly embarrassed the Kremlin, he seems perfectly relaxed. And I am surprised by the bushy black beard; he has always been clean-shaven in photos. It adds to a professorial aura as he peers at me over Zoom from his home in Leicester, where he lives with his Turkish wife and two young children.
Besides identifying the Salisbury attackers, who smeared the lethal nerve agent Novichok on Skripal's doorknob, Bellingcat last month published the names and photographs of several Russian agents believed to have last year poisoned Alexei Navalny, Russia's leading opposition activist.
In another coup, Higgins identified the Russian truck that fired a missile that brought down a Malaysian civilian airliner over Ukraine in 2014, killing 298 people. Russia has always denied being responsible and likes to dismiss Higgins and Bellingcat as an arm of Western intelligence.
Russian television has doorstepped his mother in Leicester and suspected Russian hackers have tried to break into his computers. So how worried is he about his personal safety?
It may go against his instincts as an introvert, but Higgins now believes a high profile is his best defence. "If I stubbed my toe, people would assume Russia was behind it," he says. In any case, "if someone is going to rub something on your door handle, there's not much you can do about it".
As a painfully shy youth, he was an obsessive gamer who could spend hours immersed in World of Warcraft. His father was a Royal Air Force engineer who worked on various UK bases. Higgins dropped out of a media studies course to do a variety of administrative jobs. He found housing for refugees and processed payments for a lingerie firm. "So you'll read on Russia Today that I was an underwear salesman — they've turned it into some weird narrative about me."
He tried for a conventional journalism career but was rejected by the BBC and ITN — much as they may regret it now. By then he had started blogging under the name Brown Moses, a pseudonym from a Frank Zappa song. With an interest in military matters — perhaps thanks to the paternal influence — he began examining conflicts in the Middle East, studying thousands of videos posted by citizens caught up in conflict. This coincided with a dramatic expansion of social media and access to tools such as Google Earth. Suddenly it was possible to see what was happening in a faraway war zone without having to go anywhere near it. "You've got this mass of information from satellite imagery, videos and photos that is being shared," he explains. "The skill is piecing it all together and understanding what it shows you."
His family thought his "weird hobby" was a dead end. "Then when I was, like, 'I'm going to start doing this as a job,' they were slightly horrified." And then came a big breakthrough when he identified weapons from Croatia in a video posted by a jihadist group in Syria. The story he wrote on his blog was picked up by the New York Times on its front page. He went on to document the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons, and in 2014 launched Bellingcat. The name came from a cat and mouse fable, in which the mice decide to put a bell on the cat's neck as an early warning system to avoid being eaten. The shy science-fiction enthusiast — he likes Star Trek — who was once dismissed by some as "just some blogger", now has his own media operation and staff. "We're a real organisation now and I'm the executive director," he says proudly.
About one-third of funding, he says, comes from the workshops Bellingcat organises around the world to encourage more open-source reporting as an antidote to dictatorships. The rest is from private foundations such as the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit organisation set up in America in the 1980s. Higgins insists he does not take money from any government.
"It's quite annoying because people say Bellingcat is funded directly by the US State Department, and we've turned down loads of money from them because we don't want to take direct funding — like, literally millions and millions."
Many remain sceptical, though, about Bellingcat and its successes. Besides the Russians, "there's a big group of people who've decided we're obviously working for the CIA or GCHQ or whichever abbreviation you prefer," he says.
For its supporters, though, Bellingcat is beating Western intelligence services at their own game. "I've occasionally met people who know people who do this [intelligence] stuff," he adds. "Back in 2013 and 2014, when I was first doing this before Bellingcat, they'd say that I was their dirty little secret: they'd steal all the work I was doing and put it in their own reports."
Bellingcat's success in Russia has been facilitated, Higgins admits, by rampant corruption, the "rot at the core of Russian society", as he puts it. It might seem paradoxical in a country with a reputation for state control, but Russia is one of few countries where home addresses, car registrations and passport records can be acquired, for a modest fee, over the internet.
"Any information that is gathered by the government is basically available for sale to anyone who knows how to find it," he says. "It's not even the dark web. On any old internet forum you can find someone who says, 'Give me $100 and I'll get you the passport details of this person.' "
This helped Bellingcat to unmask the Salisbury poisoners — the two outed agents have since been reassigned. "They've been sent to Siberia," Higgins says, laughing. Not that Putin seemed to care much about being found out — some analysts believe, on the contrary, that he wanted the world to know his country was behind the poisoning.
The Russian leader has learned he can get away with such malevolent behaviour, Higgins argues, because of our lack of retaliation in the West: "We don't really do anything except expel some diplomats and do some really targeted sanctions that no one really cares about. Until Russia feels they're paying a price that they're unwilling to pay, they're going to keep doing this stuff."
Experts believe the Kremlin has been infuriated by Bellingcat's ability to identify state security agents suspected of poisonings: Higgins says there are signs of a crackdown on internet information-peddlers. In the end, though, Bellingcat may matter little to Putin. Polls show the vast majority of Russians do not believe Putin was involved in Navalny's poisoning — and those who do, may well approve.
What is Higgins working on now? We are talking just before the storming of Congress in Washington and Bellingcat is already on the case. He and his team are investigating the growing influence on politics of QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory whose adherents — including many of the Washington rioters — believe in a deep-state plot led by a paedophile and Satanist cult involving the Democrats.
Higgins believes this bizarre movement and its unfounded claims proliferating over the internet are like a "brain parasite". For one who has spent much of his life on the internet — and built his career on it — he makes a compelling sermoniser: "The internet is fantastic for making you find stuff that reinforces your beliefs," he says, but it also "drives you as crazy as you can be".
We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, by Eliot Higgins (Bloomsbury $33, published Feburary 16.)