The Self-Taught Weapons Inspector

Patrick Radden Keefe profiles (paywalled) the remarkable Eliot Higgins, a 34-year-old college dropout and autodidact who transformed himself into an expert on Syrian arms – thanks to YouTube:

Unlike the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, the war in Syria has not produced a huge body of journalism by international reporters on the ground. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Syria is currently the most dangerous dateline in the world; the regime of Bashar al-Assad has effectively banned the international press. More than fifty reporters have been killed while covering the conflict, and dozens more are missing, presumably detained by the authorities. Yet Syrians have managed to access the Internet, and all the factions in the ongoing civil war have uploaded videos onto YouTube.

They film their own military offensives and release propagandistic recruitment videos. They document civilian casualties and the ritualized speeches of regime officials who have defected to the opposition. They present evidence of war crimes, including torture, mutilations, and executions. And they show weaponry: rifles, bombs, and rockets.

Although Higgins has never been to Syria, and until recently had no connection to the country, he has become perhaps the foremost expert on the munitions used in the war. On YouTube, he scans as many as 300 new videos a day, with the patience of an ornithologist. Even when a rocket has largely been destroyed, he can often identify it by whatever scraps survive. When he doesn’t recognize a weapon, he researches it, soliciting information from his many followers on Facebook and Twitter. In June 2012, he revealed on his blog that the Free Syrian Army, the leading armed opposition group, had obtained anti-aircraft guns. The next month, he presented video evidence that Assad’s regime had deployed cluster bombs. “It’s very incongruous, this high-intensity conflict being monitored by a guy in Leicester,” Stuart Hughes, a BBC News producer in London, told me. “He’s probably broken more stories than most journalists do in a career.”

Follow Higgins at his blog here.