Adonis Diaries

Covert arms trafficking into Syria: By US and Europe

Posted on: April 1, 2013

Covert arms trafficking into Syria: By US and Europe

The conflict in Syria has been extremely difficult and dangerous for conventional media organisations to cover. But the slew of YouTube footage from citizen journalists has opened up a new way of monitoring what’s happening for those such as Higgins who are dedicated and meticulous enough to sift through it.

Eliot Higgins, aka Brown Moses, has no need for a flak jacket, nor does he carry himself with the bravado of a war reporter. As an unemployed finance and admin worker his expertise lies in compiling spreadsheets, not dodging bullets. He has never been near a war zone.

That hasn’t stopped Brown Moses from breaking some of the most important stories on the Syrian conflict in the last year.

Matthew Weaver published in the Guardian this March 21, 2013:

Eliot Higgins, aka Brown Moses, encounters a new video from Syria from matthew weaver on Vimeo.

Brown Moses works on analyzing Syrian weapons. It began as a hobby and is now frequently cited by human rights groups and has led to questions in parliament.

Higgins’ latest discovery of a new batch of Croatian weapons in the hands of Syrian rebels appears to have blown the lid on a covert international operation to arm the opposition.

And he’s done it all, largely unpaid, from a laptop more than 3,000 miles away from Damascus, in his front room in a Leicester suburb.

Behind the tulip-patterned lace curtains, among the discarded toys belonging to his toddler daughter, a new video has just popped into his inbox. It appears to shows Croatian weapons, believed to have been smuggled to Syria with the collusion of the west, in the hands of jihadi fighters, who are increasingly leading the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Higgins’ weapons-spotting eye is immediately drawn to two tubes next to a large gun. The detail suggests that any US attempts to vet which groups get such arms are failing.

Pointing at the screen, Higgins says: “Those are rocket pods for the M79 Osa Croatian rocket launcher. And what’s even more interesting is this YouTube channel belongs to Ansar al-Islam, which is a jihadi (wahhabi) organisation. That group shouldn’t be getting those weapons.”

Higgins, 34, has no training in weapons, human rights research or journalism – he dropped out of a media studies course at university. But his work is being taken up by everyone from Amnesty International to the New York Times.

He is amused to be referred to as a weapons expert. “Journalists assume I’ve worked in the arms trade. But before the Arab spring I knew no more about weapons that the average Xbox owner. I had no knowledge beyond what I’d learned from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rambo.

Higgins initially operated on chat-rooms and comment threads under the pseudonym Brown Moses. His online avatar – taken from one of Francis Bacon’s paintings of a screaming pope – was often the first to appear in the comments section on the Guardian’s daily Middle East live blog.

Each day he would do verbal battle below the line with online trolls, conspiracy theorists and fellow Arab spring obsessives. The name Brown Moses, taken from a Frank Zappa song, has led to confusion about his identity.

“It makes some people think I’m black and Jewish – I’ve even been racially abused. I’ve been accused of all sorts of things online: CIA, MI5, MI6, Mossad, Bilderberg group.”

Partly to avoid such suspicions, he no longer conceals his identity and has emerged into the open, where he is being hailed as something of a pioneer.

“Brown Moses is among the best out there when it comes to weapons monitoring in Syria,” says Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who worked with Higgins to document the use of cluster bombs in Syria. He represents an important development in arms monitoring, which used to be the domain of a few secretive specialists with access to the required and often classified reference materials.

Peter Bouckaert says: “Eliot is the first to admit that he is obsessive compulsive in his attention to details. He gets his facts right, and has become an indispensable resource.”

Eliot Higgins, blogger on syrian weapons

Eliot Higgins at home.

The New York Times veteran war reporter CJ Chivers, author of The Gun: the story of the AK47, says fellow journalists should be more honest about the debt they owe to Higgins’ Brown Moses blog. “Many people, whether they admit or not, have been relying on that blog’s daily labor to cull the uncountable videos that circulate from the conflict.

Chivers acknowledged that Higgins was on to the Croatian arms story weeks before the New York Times. He and Higgins then worked together to develop the story, with Chivers rooting out extra details about how the weapons were financed.

In a blogpost about the genesis of the report, Chivers wrote: “Thank you, Eliot, for your patience, and your fine eye, and for creating an opportunity for merging new and old forms of reporting into a fresh look at recent events.”

Higgins goes through about 450 YouTube channels from Syria every evening. The list includes uploaded footage from activists, rebel brigades and Islamist groups, as well as from Assad supporters and state TV footage. “If EastEnders isn’t on, I get straight on the laptop. On a good night when nothing much has been posted, it will take me an hour and a half, but I’ve been looking more closely recently.”

Recent activist footage claimed to show the remains of a Chinese-made cluster bomb at the scene of a bombing. Drawing on his online network of fellow weapons-spotters and translators, Higgins established that it was in fact a bicycle pump. “If I started putting out rubbish I’d know about it pretty quickly, because of the audience that follows me,” he says.

“The success of the blog feeds the compulsion,” Higgins says. “If I had the chance, I do it for 16 hours a day. When I’m sat on a bus I’ll be checking Twitter looking for footage of planes being shot down. When cluster bombs were first used I couldn’t sleep. It was about midnight and I saw this video of these bomblets spilt on the floor with their casings. I had to research it. You have to be first and you have to be right.”

Since then, Higgins has put together a database of 491 videos of cluster bombs being used across Syria, together with map references and details of the type of weapons used.

He has had more time to do this since being made redundant from his day job last October. The organisation he was working for lost a government contract to house asylum seekers to the security firm G4S. “None of my jobs have been relevant to the work I’m doing now. The closest I got to Syrians was telling asylum seekers where they were being picked up. The advantage I’ve got is time and the fact I’ve been going through them for a year or so.”

Higgins wife’s job behind the counter at the local post office helps pay the bills. “My wife sees me doing all this work and thinks I should be getting paid for it. But I’m doing it because I see stuff that isn’t being reported in the mainstream media and want to record it.”

He says his approach is no substitute for traditional war reporting but it can help tell the story. “This can’t replace journalists on the ground. They take amazing risks and do an incredible job. But this work can direct them.

“I don’t think many people would have picked up on Croatian weapons in Deraa because there weren’t journalists in that area. It may never have been noticed. It was only because I was on the lookout for interesting looking rocket launchers.”

What we have learned about Syrian weapons via Brown Moses

Cluster bombs were first spotted by Higgins in summer of 2012 and used extensively used from October. The Syrian government denies they exist in Syria, but Higgins has developed a database of almost 500 videos documenting the use of cluster bombs, which are banned in most countries.

• Reports of DIY barrel bombs being thrown out of helicopters were initially dismissed as “baloney” by a Russian military expert. Extensive and clear footage unearthed by Higgins suggests otherwise.

• The proliferation of shoulder-launched heat-seeking missiles known as Manpads. Most recently Higgins has documented Chinese-made FN6 Manpads in the hands of rebels fighting around Aleppo.

• A cache of weapons from the former Yugoslavia was first noticed by Higgins at the start of this year in the hands of rebel groups fighting in the southern province of Deraa. The weapons were financed by Saudi Arabia with the knowledge of the US, subsequent reports alleged.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s




April 2013

Blog Stats

  • 1,522,111 hits

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by

Join 769 other subscribers
%d bloggers like this: