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Skripal poisoning investigator: Russia has an agenda

Birgit Maass
October 9, 2018

After extensive research, the Bellingcat investigative network has revealed the reportedly true identity of the second suspect in the poisoning of a Russian double agent in the UK. DW spoke to its founder, Eliot Higgins.

Security camera footage of two suspects in Salisbury
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Bildfunk/AP/Metropolitan Police

On Tuesday British citizen journalist Eliot Higgins, of the investigative network Bellingcat, addressed members of the press in London following its announcement that it had conclusively identified the second suspect accused of poisoning the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, earlier this year.

How did they do it? "We use 99.9 percent publicly available information. And we share with everyone," Higgins explained. His network of researchers used passport information and combed through official as well as leaked Russian databases to conclude that the second suspected attacker is Alexander Mishkin, a military doctor employed by the Russian security services. 

Bellingcat private investigations founder Eliot Higgins
Higgins: 'The Russian government has repeatedly accused us of lying'Image: DW/B. Maass

DW: Have you cooperated at all with the British intelligence services in this case?

Eliot Higgins: We have not. In the past, we have worked with a Joint Investigation Team, for example in our investigation on the MH17 [the Malaysian Airlines plane that was shot down in 2014 while flying over eastern Ukraine – editor]. That is a one-way process: we share information with them; they don't give us anything back. But in this case, we have worked completely on our own.

British media has reported that a third person was involved in the Skripal attack. Is that something you have investigated?

We have not had any information about a third suspect. If the British government releases any information, we could look it up. But so far, we don't have any information on this.

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You are encouraging others to use open-source investigations, and are teaching your techniques in seminars. How will open-source investigations change journalism — do you see a sea change?

Eliot Higgins: I think it can have a very significant effect. We do a lot to train people; we run our own workshops. We are, for example, just starting a project in Yemen, where we are training people on the ground to document incidents there. We show them how to use open-source investigation techniques. When we see someone using these techniques, it's very fulfilling.

You seem to be faster than the actual investigators!

An investigation into the [Russian intelligence agency] GRU is going to involve a lot of classified information. There is only so much that can be reached publicly. So we find the declassified information on the classified version, and it's incredible how much information we can access.

Read more: Bellingcat identifies Skripal suspect as Russian colonel

We can expect that the Russian government is going to rebuke your findings. Pro-Russian media like RT have also been critical of you in the past, saying your evidence raises more questions than answers. How can you defend your case in this instance?

The Russian government and RT obviously have an agenda. The Russian government has repeatedly accused us of lying, but when we asked them for evidence of that, they sent us a series of blog posts they copied off the internet. They plagiarize blog posts, rewrite them and present them as their own work. I don't know if that is incompetence, or if they just want to keep misinformation churning along. But because we use open sources, we can display step-by-step how we have come to our conclusions.

But there are some sources that you can't give away.

This case is unusual, because we had to use our contacts in Russia. Normally, we are using 99.9 percent publicly available information. And in our reports, we share that information with everyone.

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Birgit Maass DW UK Correspondent@birgit_maass