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by Patrick Radden Keefe
Rocket Man

How an unemployed blogger confirmed that Syria had used chemical weapons.

12 December 2013

As rockets fell in Syria, Eliot Higgins was asleep at his house twenty-three hundred miles away, in Leicester, England. He woke a few hours later, roused his toddler daughter, Ela, and padded downstairs to make her porridge. It was August 21st, and it had been ten months since Higgins was laid off from his job as an administrator at a nonprofit providing housing for asylum seeker.

His days now consisted of looking after Ela and writing blog posts. As he made breakfast, he checked Twitter on his phone, and noticed reports of a possible chemical-weapons attack in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. Similar reports had come out of Syria in recent months, but they had been difficult to verify. This time, the casualty estimates were in the hundreds. He opened his laptop and went on YouTube, where witnesses to previous incidents had uploaded video evidence. There were already dozens of videos from Ghouta, and the severity and scale of the destruction shocked Higgins: young children convulsing, their open mouths slick with foam; stiff, unbloodied corpses lined up in rows on hospital floors.

“Immediately, I gathered as much information as possible,” Higgins told me recently. Online, Higgins is known as Brown Moses, and, as Ela played, he assembled videos from Ghouta, preparing to post them on the Brown Moses Blog. Unlike the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, the war in Syria has not produced a huge body of journalism by international reporters on the ground. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Syria is currently the most dangerous dateline in the world; the regime of Bashar al-Assad has effectively banned the international press. More than fifty reporters have been killed while covering the conflict, and dozens more are missing, presumably detained by the authorities. Yet Syrians have managed to access the Internet, and all the factions in the ongoing civil war have uploaded videos onto YouTube. They film their own military offensives and release propagandistic recruitment videos. They document civilian casualties and the ritualized speeches of regime officials who have defected to the opposition. They present evidence of war crimes, including torture, mutilations, and executions. And they show weaponry: rifles, bombs, and rockets.

Although Higgins has never been to Syria, and until recently had no connection to the country, he has become perhaps the foremost expert on the munitions used in the war. On YouTube, he scans as many as three hundred new videos a day, with the patience of an ornithologist. Even when a rocket has largely been destroyed, he can often identify it by whatever scraps survive. When he doesn’t recognize a weapon, he researches it, soliciting information from his many followers on Facebook and Twitter. In June, 2012, he revealed on his blog that the Free Syrian Army, the leading armed opposition group, had obtained anti-aircraft guns. The next month, he presented video evidence that Assad’s regime had deployed cluster bombs. “It’s very incongruous, this high-intensity conflict being monitored by a guy in Leicester,” Stuart Hughes, a BBC News producer in London, told me. “He’s probably broken more stories than most journalists do in a career.” . . .

by Patrick Radden Keefe - newyorker.com
November 25, 2013