The YouTube war whizz

By Theresa Breuer on August 12th, 2013

Eliot Higgins knows the difference between a regular Milkor MGL grenade launcher and the type designated RBG-6. He knows how a mobile mortar battery is created, and that an aerosol bomb doesn’t contain chemical warfare agents. He is an expert on the war in Syria, exposing arms trafficking and the use of illegal bombs.

In order to do his work, Higgins has to hide. But not from Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad, nor from the rebels that have spread out all over the country. This morning, he is hiding from his daughter, 21 months old. “If she sees me in front of the laptop, she wants me to listen to children’s songs on YouTube with her”, he says.

Higgins’ hiding place is his bedroom in Leicester, England, 5,000 kilometres from Damascus. He is not a political scientist, he has never been to Syria, or anywhere in the Middle East for that matter, and he doesn’t speak Arabic. Higgins is an unemployed guy in his thirties. When he lost his job as an admin worker last autumn, he made his hobby a mission, and started blogging full-time.

Since then, Higgins has been reviewing some 500 YouTube channels every day. He examines every detail in the videos that Syrian fighters, activists and supporters of Assad have uploaded. To which group do the fighters belong? Where in Syria was the footage taken? Which weapons are used in the video, and where do they come from?

Whatever he discovers, he publishes on his blog under the pseudonym Brown Moses. (He got the name from a Frank Zappa song.) When Higgins still had a job, he wanted to remain anonymous while arguing online with trolls and conspiracy theorists about the situation in Syria. But when rumours about his identity came up – is that a black Jew blogging about Syria? – he revealed himself. Higgins wanted people to know that he is just a normal guy with no hidden agendas.

Within a few months, Higgins turned into a weapons expert, even though before the war in Syria he knew no more about weapons than the average Counter-Strike player. Now, think tanks are inviting him to conferences in Italy and the US to discuss social media in war zones. Human Rights Watch cites his findings, international media organisations use his research, and publishing companies have expressed interest in buying his blog.

His passion for Syria grew out of frustration with mainstream media coverage of the Arab Spring. “Social media was such a big part of it,” he says, “yet no one seemed to bother to analyse all the material that was on Twitter and YouTube.” So he decided to do it himself. Along the way, he picked up extensive knowledge about weaponry by comparing images, or asking people in forums. Last summer, Higgins work started getting attention, when he uncovered that the Syrian regime was using cluster bombs – even though Assad had always denied doing so.

In January, he had his biggest scoop so far: Higgins had discovered videos that showed Islamist rebels shooting weapons from Croatia. No one could explain where the insurgents had gotten them from. The New York Times started investigating Higgins’ findings. The paper came to the conclusion that Saudi Arabia had bought the weapons from Croatia, and subsequently smuggled them through Jordan into Syria to help the insurgent’s cause.

Without Higgins, this arms trafficking would probably not have been discovered. But despite his success, he was almost forced to stop blogging a couple of months ago. In March, he received a job offer – under the condition that he would discontinue his blog. Higgins was torn. “There is no one analysing social media in Syria like I do”, he says, “but somehow I have to earn money. My wife’s part time job isn’t enough to provide for our family”.

Friends and journalists convinced Higgins to start a crowdfunding campaign. Within a couple of weeks, he raised nearly $10,000 (£6,400) on the Indiegogo platform. One donor, who wished to remain anonymous, gave £5,000  on top of that. Also, the campaign network Avaaz has started supporting his work. “This way I don’t have to get a regular job and give up the blog”, Higgins says. “I can stay independent.”

In spite of everything he has learnt about Syria in the past year – or maybe because of everything he knows by now – he has no desire to visit the country himself. “I leave that to the professional war reporters,” he says. Higgins has found a better way to invest the money he has raised: He recently hired an interpreter in Saudi Arabia who translates his blog into Arabic. That way, the people who are directly affected by the war in Syria can read what is happening around them.