OSINT: Ukraine Edition
Recently, I wrote a (Substack) piece about the emerging field of Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT). With all the reports coming out of the conflict in Ukraine, though, I have decided to continue my reporting on the topic. As with before, the Bellingcat group (founded by Eliot Higgins) is leading the charge, and becoming increasingly recognized for their work.
Even the famous journal Scientific American has recently taken note of this exciting field.
In the article, lead Bellingcat researcher Johanna Wild notes:
At Bellingcat, we use the term “open-source research.” We understand this to mean investigative research of all accessible online sources. This includes images, videos or conversations in social networks. We also evaluate satellite images or various databases on the Web. So we don’t work like traditional journalists who conduct interviews or get a picture on-site. Most of the time, we sit in front of the screen in very different countries. Our core team now consists of almost 30 people. It’s quite small, but we work very intensively with quite a few volunteers who help us with the research. Without the help of the online community, we could do much less. That’s why we offer workshops to train more and more people in open-source research.
One name that has been vitally important in helping to clear the “fog of war” is Christo Grozev.
Grozev, the lead Russia investigator with Bellingcat, is a Bulgarian investigative journalist and media expert. His investigations into the identity of the suspects in the 2018 Novichok agent poisoning in the UK earned him and his team the European Press Prize for Investigative Journalism. Additionally, he authored investigations identifying the two senior Russian officers linked to the downing of Malaysia Airline Flight 17, and into the poisoning of Alexei Navalny in 2020. Since the Ukraine invasion began, Grozev has been very active on Twitter:
The article cited above is written by Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat. He states:
For those of us who have spent the past decade closely watching the conflict in Syria, the Russian invasion of Ukraine brings with it a dreadful familiarity. Much of what has unfolded over the last three weeks has direct parallels that are hard to miss. Russia’s attempts to frame its military action as targeting “nationalists” while it bombs hospitals and terrorises civilians with cluster munitions is familiar to anyone who watched their actions after they entered the Syrian conflict in 2015. Rather than bombing Isis, the Russian air force targeted opposition-controlled areas, indiscriminately attacking not only military targets, but hospitals and bakeries.
The article linked to in the above Tweet contains a unique interactive database created by Grozev/Bellingcat that allows the reader to view the details of various attacks by time and location.
Christiaan Triebert, a journalist/researcher at the New York Times, who I profiled in my last article, has also been carefully documenting and analyzing the conflict.
The most impressive report that I have seen yet was not from Bellingcat, though. It was from the team at Britain-based Financial Times.
The initial failures have ushered in a new phase of the conflict characterised by heavy bombardments of densely populated areas such as Kharkiv and Mariupol — a tactic Russia used previously in Chechnya and Syria. Ukrainian civilians have borne the brunt of these assaults.
Along with informative writing, the article also contains maps and so-called “visual investigations”, as shown by the above screenshot.
Finally, world renowned researchers are not the only ones informing us about the attack. Amateur OSINT researchers, including college students, have also played an important role.
Under the pseudonym Intel Crab, University of Alabama sophomore Justin Peden has become an unlikely source of information about the unfolding Ukraine-Russia war. From his dorm room, the 20-year-old sifts through satellite images, TikTok videos, and security feeds, sharing findings like troop movements and aircraft models with more than 220,000 followers on Twitter. Peden said that his posts have reached 20 million people and his follower count has increased by over 50,000 people over the past month, according to his Twitter analytics.
“There will always be a fog of war, but I think it is the thinnest veil of war we’ve ever had,” Peden said, after being taken aback by the increased attention accounts like his have received over the last couple of weeks. “It’s surprising to me because it’s been, for the longest time, so niche on Twitter and the internet as a whole,” he told Rest of World.