In an era when there is Google Earth and a lot of photos taken by satellites and mobile phones, governments and armies participating in the war, it is hard to deny or ignore.
Network of investigative journalists and analysts of the digital data from the organization Bellingcat actively resists attempts to hide something. Using open sources, the organization is monitoring Russian actions in the war in Ukraine, Russian and American bombings in Syria and fighting in Iraq. In an interview with Aktuálně.cz analyst Bellingcat Christian Trabert talks about the style of warfare in Syria and how the growing influence of Islamists in the ranks of the Syrian rebels.
Aktuálně.cz: Bellingcat analyzes the precision air strikes, which strikes the coalition led by the United States in Iraq and Syria. Can you say how many civilians were killed as a result of these bombings?
Christian Tribert: I want to be impartial, so I must say that the coalition tries to avoid civilian casualties. However, according to our data, since the beginning of the bombardment in 2014 killed over three thousand civilians (in Iraq and Syria combined). However, it is likely that only a minimal evaluation. We check all regions using Google Earth and satellite imagery.
The majority of the victims associated with cases where due to inadequate intelligence information was incorrectly selected target or when close to a properly chosen target were objects from civilians.
It happens that the US and coalition just decide that the goal is so important that you can endanger the lives of civilians.
We recently checked the bombing of the village of al-Gina in the Syrian province of Aleppo. During the bombing of the building, which some locals called the mosque there killed 35 people. The US said that the attack was directed against the commander of “al-Qaeda” (banned in Russia as a terrorist organization — approx. ed.) in the province of Idlib.
We got acquainted with the pictures which were published by the Pentagon, and found that for them the object is located in the province of Aleppo. The Pentagon has acknowledged that the wrong province, but reiterated the reason for the airstrike. Also we were told that the destruction was allegedly not a mosque, and hangar.
We found a video which clearly confirmed that the building was a mosque. In the Pentagon we were told that we have available to those of intelligence they have.
Personally, I believe in transparent democracies, people should have the right to criticize the actions of the armed forces of their own state. In my opinion, this is important.
However, I repeat: the United States are among those countries that recognize the fact of attacking the civilian population if this happens.
— Are you suggesting that the Russian air force, by contrast, deliberately bombarding hospitals and places with large concentrations of civilians, according to the rebels?
— Yes, from our extensive documentary base that in some cases this was done intentionally. During the Russian air attacks the number of victims among the civilian population was indeed enormous.
But unlike the U.S. Department of defense, the Russian Ministry with us, not communicating, not answering questions and emails.
We also found that the Ministry of defence of the Russian Federation repeatedly published misleading information. For example, on a press-conferences its representatives have clearly stated that attacked Tabqa in raqqa province. We found this place via Google Earth. It is located near the city of al-Bab in Aleppo province, and it is very far from Tabka. Then why did the Russian Ministry claimed that attacked Tabqa?
Another time, the Russians claimed to have bombed Raqqa (one of the centers of banned terrorist organization “Islamic state”). However, the study of satellite images showed that we are talking about order in the province of Hama. The Russians have said that the goals were on the territory of the “Islamic state”, but its in that region never had.
Comparing the data with Google Earth, we found that although the targets of the bombing were declared tanks, in fact it was a wastewater treatment plant. We found documentation of the German company that repaired the object.
— Idlib province in Northwest Syria controlled by the rebels. Are they radical Islamists or part of a terrorist network “al-Qaeda”?
— It is impossible not to notice that the influence of Islamists in the region are rising. In other words, they’re very strong. To go on their own in the province of Idlib we can’t. It is dangerous. There managed to get a single journalist. He visited Khan Sheyhun, where chemical weapons have been used. This man is a journalist Kareem Shaheen of The Guardian.
The fact that we Western journalists can’t go there, speaks for itself. Even former moderate members of the Free Syrian army has joined al-Qaida or fighting for her.
The question is what will happen with the Syrian province of Idlib in the future. I think that we will hear about the fierce battles there, and I fear for local residents.
In Syria it is difficult to get even due to the fact that Turkey does not let journalists through its border, isn’t it?
For example, for “Harakat Ahrar al-sham” (this is a banned terrorist organization “al-Nusra Front”, claiming to be “al-Qaeda”), it makes no sense to let journalists into their territory. The benefits of this no.
They say that they have their own local media agencies, TV channels and added: “Why do we need to let independent journalists?”
Turkey is building on its border wall, and only time will tell where it leads.
Own experience we know that for a long time, Turkey has kept the border with Syria open to goods, ammunition and people. And when the part of the Syrian-Turkish border from the Syrian side controlled the “Islamic state”, there was a real Paradise for its militants. They were free with no problems go to Turkish territory. Subsequently, Turkey has changed its attitude towards the “Islamic state”, tightening control.
— Your organization Bellingcat remembered by the wider public primarily in connection with the investigation into the crash of a Malaysian airplane over the Ukrainian Donbas in 2014. What steps have you taken to obtain information about the tragedy of flight MH17?
— When the crash happened, there was a lot of contradictory statements. The Kremlin says one thing, the Pentagon — another, and Kiev — the third and so on.
Who’s lying, is unknown. Russia at first said that the plane was hit by a Ukrainian bomber, and then claimed that on the deck the bomb exploded.
We did not aim to point the guilty finger. We wanted to find out what happened.
The convoy of anti-aircraft missile complex “Buk” was noticed on several videos and photos taken before the plane crash. We were faced with the question of how can we, based on these data, to accurately determine the location of the complex.
We have used Google Earth, I compared photos and found the exact location of the car near the Parking lot and shop in the town of Torez in Eastern Ukraine. Looking at the shadows, it was possible to draw a conclusion about the time of day.
Therefore, the opportunity to trace the path made by the system “Buk” on the territory of the separatists in the East of Ukraine.
We were trying to figure out how the complex came to be traced on the basis of photographs of the track of the car with missiles, which was shown in the photo. They are not all the same: some have different minor damage. In the end we found a suitable property, which has been sent from the military base in Kursk.
— Since then, the Kremlin criticizes you. Does your address threats?
— Do. But mostly from people who support the “Islamic state”. There are also threats from Turkey. For example, I personally there several times threatened to kill.
As for the threats from Russia, we are rather faced with the Russian “trolls” on the forums, not because someone from Russia to us openly threatening.
For our investigation we find it difficult to obtain visa to Russia, although I am in a privileged position. I have a Dutch passport, and therefore has some protection. But some colleagues from Bellingcat — Russian citizenship, and they live in Russia. So they have to be very careful to use aliases.