Thursday, June 16, 2022

  • Thursday, June 16, 2022
  • Elder of Ziyon

I mentioned yesterday that the founder of Bellingcat, Eliot Higgins, started insulting my research about the Shireen Abu Akleh while refusing to actually say what my mistakes were. This pattern continued throughout the day on Twitter as people pressed him that an OSINT researcher should take criticism seriously.

Higgins has been ignoring my responses, but he started answering others today. Here are his few specific critiques of my research as he engaged with tweeter Jonah Balfour, who is a fine researcher:

EH: The interpretation of the "sniper" videos are a real tell when it comes to the author's biases.

JB: In what way? He had someone translate the video in which one of the witnesses points to “snipers” in houses towards the southeast. Again, you criticize his interpretation without saying what’s wrong with it. Screenshot of his transcript below:

EH: Does that transcript state they were IDF or Palestinian snipers?  Are they pointing directly at snipers or the approximate direction they believe them to be in?  Do they claim they were shooting at the group of journalists?
This is an amazing response. First of all, the people in the video definitely mention "shabab," the Jenin Islamic Jihad members. But even if they weren't, this video is proof that there were other gunmen in the general area that almost certainly had a line of sight to the journalists. There is zero evidence of IDF activity in the area. These gunmen that we have witnesses for, as well as the gunmen that we do have video of, are ignored by Bellingcat. 

It is especially jarring that Bellingcat spends lots of time disproving that the militants to the south of the IDF could have shot Shireen - but none on the militants who we have video of who were to the southeast between 175-195 meters away! (Again, I don't think that they were the shooters without finding line of sight, but Bellingcat prefers to not even admit they exist.) 

How can anyone trust open source research from an organization that deliberately ignores multiple pieces of evidence that counters their thesis? 

Not only that, but while the Bellingcat analysis painstakingly tries to tease out facts that seem to support IDF culpability, suddenly the standards of proof skyrocket when dealing with evidence of Palestinian culpability. Higgins implies that this video conversation is worthless unless there is direct video of the snipers shooting towards the journalists, and otherwise is hearsay. Yet there is no such video of the IDF shooting at journalists, and the witnesses Bellingcat refers to in its report are no more reliable than these witnesses to gunmen are. In fact, the witnesses in Bellingcat's report have incentive to lie, a random conversation between Jenin residents in Arabic is not likely to be disinformation. 

JB: And again, the strongest evidence showing it wasn’t the IDF is the evidence you uncovered in the Bellingcat report. The forensic audio analysis is solid. But the IDF was too far away, according to your analysis, to be the shooter.

EH: It's an estimate that can be effected by a number of environmental factors, so the claims it's a hard limit is false, which is why I'm saying it's bad analysis because it ignores those details to make its point.
I didn't ignore that detail at all. I asked Rob Maher explicitly whether the environmental conditions could make that much of a difference, and he said no:

I asked the expert used by CNN and Bellingcat, Rob Maher of Montana State University, if there were any circumstances like weather or wind that could stretch the 195 meter estimate to 210 or 215 meters. His answer was, "I think that if the average bullet speed is assumed to be at least 760 m/s , the effect of wind and temperature would only move the estimated distance by a few meters, not tens of meters."
It was not a windy day and it was not a very hot day that would even move the estimate a couple of meters. 

[760 m/s which is the slowest known speed for a 5.56mm bullet at 100 yards, which would be the slowest average speed at ~200 meters - the scenario where the estimated distance would be the maximu, of 195 meters.]

The only ways that the IDF could be within the range of the audio analysis would be if they moved much closer and no one noticed, or if they are using a gun with 5.56mm bullets that go much slower than anyone if aware of. Both of those are highly unlikely.

EH: It doesn't need to be, it's still in range

JB: How is it still in range? According to the estimates in your report the IDF was 20-25 meters outside the range given. Even according to CNN and WaPo’s estimate it’s ~15 meters out of range.

The total range given in your report was 177-184, that’s a 7m margin. The IDF was 20-25 m outside that margin, so about 3x the margin itself. How is that not relevant? Especially when there WAS an armed group within the range you identified??

EH: We measured the lead vehicle being about 190m away from the location, which puts it in range.

...I'd also note the expert WaPo spoke to gave a longer range, which also puts the IDF in range.
Bellingcat said that the lead IDF vehicle was 190 meters from where Abu Akleh was shot. This is not correct. 

Their picture shows Abu Akleh in a location about 8 meters south of the tree that she collapsed next to. With a massive brain injury, she didn't stagger 8 meters. You can see where they say she was shot and the tree to the north.

The tree is the most obvious landmark. Bellingcat gives no reason - video, photo or otherwise - to place Abu Akleh in that position to the south of the tree. 

It is hard to escape the conclusion that  the Bellingcat researcher tried to fit the data to make the IDF as close as possible to the their audio forensics estimate of 177-184 meters (Bellingcat and CNN gave different assumptions to the audio expert, so he gave different responses). 

Interestingly, Higgins seems to realize that Bellingcat's estimates simply do not add up, so he refers to the Washington Post estimates from their different audio expert of between 175-195 meter range. That's fine - I think that is more accurate based on my research of the types of weapons used by both the IDF and militants. 

Even at 195 meters, the IDF is way out of range because none of the analysts, Bellingcat included, are measuring between the IDF and the microphone -  they all measure based on their own assumptions between the IDF and the journalists. 

The IDF - based on Bellingcat's own map of their position - was 210-216 meters from the microphone.

 It is virtually impossible for a gunshot from 210 meters to have the audio signature in the videos. Which means it is virtually impossible for the IDF to have shot Abu Akleh.  And no one has managed to disprove that.  

We have now seen several sleights of hand by Bellingcat and Higgins: fudging Shireen's location, referring to the longer audio forensics estimate when theirs doesn't make sense, seemingly purposefully ignoring evidence of gunmen anywhere besides south of the IDF, and insisting on far higher standards of proof of the existence of Jenin gunmen in the potential band of firing than they use to "prove" IDF fire. 

They are accusing me of bias - but could they be the biased ones?

I admit that I am pro-Israel. That is why I am trying to be as scrupulous and transparent as possible. But what about Eliot Higgins own biases? He presents himself as an OSINT expert, does bias enter in Bellingcat's analyses?

His tweets over the past couple of days, where he makes assumptions that not only am I biased but so are my readers, indicate more than a little projection. (My readers are not shy about calling out my mistakes!)

Finally, there is a huge irony in Higgins claiming that I have no credentials and am not an expert like he is.

I am not prone to bragging. As an anonymous writer, I need to make up for my lack of credentials by doing....OSINT. Like most Bellingcat articles, I show my work  and anyone can reproduce my methodology. (I generally don't issue reports, though, since I write multiple articles a day - I show my work even as I'm doing it. And I correct when I'm wrong.)

But once Higgins wants to bring in qualifications, let's do it.

I have been doing what can be defined as OSINT since at least 2007. I have broken more stories than I can count based on open sources that the media ignores - video analysis, databases, statistics, photo analysis.  I do not only rely on the experts - as much as possible, I try to reproduce their methodology. I do my own math. I test different assumptions. In this case, I did my own audio analysis to confirm the physics of the gunshots. I verified the geolocation.  I may be a little rusty but my college education is in engineering and science. Higgins, on the other hand:

The very person who encourages ordinary people to do their own research, who has no education in the topic of OSINT, who dropped out of college and who never had a professional job, is saying that I am unqualified to do what he does.

That is bias. That is ego. And those are the enemies of objective OSINT research.

I am not fond of attacking people - I want to prove the truth about Shireen Abu Akleh and that's it. But if this person is attacking my objectivity and my methodology, then it is fair game to point out his hypocrisy and his bias.

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