The View From ISIS’s Window

by Chas Danner

One can’t help but think of our View From Your Window Contest when reading this news:

Last week, Eliot Higgins (who was the subject of a glowing profile in the New Yorker) raised £50,891 on Kickstarter to fund a new open source news project, Bellingcat, which would equip citizen journalists with the training and tools to carry out online investigations responsibly. Over the weekend, Bellingcat (which is the spiritual successor to Brown Moses, Higgins’s Blogspot that found that Syria had chemical weapons in its arsenal) has already had its first major scoop: It looks like it located an ISIS training camp.

Bellingcat used many of the same techniques as VFYWC contestants:

Higgins and his coworkers examined photos posted on July 21 by a Twitter account associated with Islamic State militants which show the ‘class of 2014 martial arts lesson.’ “It was possible to establish the time and direction the camera was facing using the shadows that are visible which narrowed down the location,” says Higgins. Other landmarks were widely visible constructions such as the bridge on this photo:


Higgins and his colleagues were able to find a bridge which looked similar in Google Earth.

Higgins 2

To be more precise, Higgins used the tool Panoramio which relies on Google Maps to Geo-tag photos. That way, the pictures of tourists can become extremely valuable. By analyzing street lamps and Arabic letters Higgins verified the location of the bridge.


Kabir Chibber chimes in:

The whole process to pinpoint the training camp is impressive—and what is more impressive is that you can do it too. Bellingcat has a series of guides on how to geolocate photos and images. As Higgins explains his mission on Kickstarter:

The practice of journalism  is continuing to expand and broaden. We don’t need to exclusively rely on traditional news media to do the digging and reporting for us. We—you—can do it on our own.

That’s absolutely correct, and the more people that realize it, the better. Having myself spent several years trying to make sense of the world’s amateur war and protest images, it’s simply amazing to see efforts like Higgins’ take flight. It used to be a lonely endeavor, cross-referencing cell-phone photos and YouTube videos with timestamps and foreign-language tweets to triangulate facts as best and fast as you could. But that being said, as all our window contest players know, sometimes there’s nothing more fun than a good puzzle, especially when the result of solving that puzzle is a clearer picture of an important world event – or maybe just the truth, for the sake of knowing what that is. I can hardly imagine the satisfaction of using those skills to catch war criminals and locate murdering jihadists, like Higgins and Bellingcat have done. This is the welcome next generation of citizen journalism, and I’m grateful it’s getting the attention and respect it deserves. Hopefully the Chini’s of the world will lend a hand.

Bellingcat’s full explanation for how they found ISIS’s camp is here.