Russian attacks on Ukraine bear many similarities to those in Syria. In both countries, Russian bombs hit civilian infrastructure, schools and kindergartens, hospitals and markets. Some of these incidents may constitute war crimes under international humanitarian law.
In Ukraine and Syria, such incidents are being followed by open source researchers. The community of amateur and professional online investigators uses freely available information – hence the name “open source” – to collect and verify a wide range of incidents.
In Ukraine, open-source investigators are collecting videos of missile attacks posted on social media, counting destroyed tanks and collaborating the names of soldiers killed. Some investigators work from anywhere in the world while others are in-country. Open-source investigators have been doing similar things in Syria for the past 11 years.
A field that grew in Syria
But while the field of online open source research is just emerging in Syria, it has matured in Ukraine.
“Everything that happened in Syria between 2014 and 2017, as well as what happened in Ukraine, really set the stage for what’s happening today,” said Eliot Higgins, founder of one of the world’s leading open source research organizations , Bellingcat. “It was basically in Syria where we learned all the processes that we now use with Ukraine. It’s also where we formed many of the relationships we now have with the tech community, with accountability organizations, policymakers and others.”
mnemonics, a Berlin non-profit organization, plays an important role in this. Mnemonic started with the Syrian Archive, set up to preserve digital evidence of human rights abuses during the Syrian war.
The archive was founded in 2014 by Syrian journalist and digital security expert Hadi al-Khatib after he noticed that activists did not have a central place to store videos and other material they had collected in Syria. Potential evidence of war crimes was also lost.
“It only took us a few days to set up the Ukraine archive,” explains al-Khatib. “We knew how to do it, and we know that there are certain standards and protocols that need to be in place for the preservation of this material,” he said.
If the digital material is to be used in court, the organization must be able to prove where it came from and that it has not been tampered with. “It took us years to get to this stage with material from Syria,” al-Khatib said. “We learned everything there.”
In addition, al-Khatib pointed out that Mnemonic had already trained Ukrainian activists in handling raw material – advice that Syrian activists received much later.
Familiarity with war crimes
There are other unfortunate lessons that open source researchers have learned from Syria.
“When we saw how cluster munitions were being used in Ukraine, we recognized them more easily,” al-Khatib told DW. “We knew her from Syria. We knew what they sounded like and how many different little explosions are happening at the same time and in a random pattern.”
Mnemonic also established what al-Khatib calls “better pattern analysis” thanks to Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure, hospitals and even farms in Syria.
He explained that there are certain signs that more or less show that, for example, a hospital was not accidentally hit by a Russian missile.
“You have to be able to demonstrate intent and we now have a clear workflow for that,” al-Khatib said. “We now understand how to do this because what happened in Aleppo 2016 is now taking place in Mariupol and Kharkiv.”
The technology used has also changed a lot, added Sam Dubberley, who leads Human Rights Watch’s digital investigative lab. Cameras on mobile phones are better, as is internet connectivity, he stressed.
Before the war began in Ukraine, over 70% of the population had Internet access, according to the World Bank.
Dubberley also noted that open-source research is now seen as credible and necessary.
“In 2011 [when the Syrian revolution began]we really worked out what it all means and how to use it,” he explained. “Today we are immediately holding further discussions and do not have to convince anyone of the importance of this work.”
What is often referred to as “open source intelligence”. in use since World War II when secret services began monitoring foreign media. Thanks to the vast amount of resources online, open source researchers today use everything from social media platforms to flight or ship trackers to satellite imagery and unsecured cellular or phone conversations.
An opportunity to demand accountability
It’s not usually possible to use open-source research alone when it comes to bringing legal action against war criminals, or for an organization like his to release an “implausible” report of an incident, Dubberley said. Additional material such as interviews with eyewitnesses is required and that takes time.
Bellingcat’s Higgins pointed out that as the field increases in importance and attention, there are more open source researchers than ever. “By increasing our audience, we become more effective as an organization,” he said.
Al-Khatib pointed out another important factor in the current development of open source investigations on the timeline from Syria to Ukraine. “It’s also about political will,” he argued. “There are many European countries and organizations opening investigations and accountability cases in Ukraine right now. It was much more difficult for us to do this with Syria. I think they should also consider what Russia did in Syria,” he concluded. “It’s very important for us. It’s the same thing, just in different countries.”
“A lot of the people working on Ukraine are the same people who have seen Russia get away with it in Syria for years,” Higgins concluded. “So there is frustration and even anger. That motivates a lot of people. They see this as an opportunity to ensure accountability.”
Edited by: Sean Sinico