By Adam Larson aka Caustic Logic
December 12, 2014
last edits Dec. 21 4:15 AM
Note: anyone wanting to skip right to the core challenge, start reading at The Hook. Otherwise, the following set-up explains the issue as it hangs
The public career of Eliot Higgins (aka Brown Moses) runs far above and a bit parallel to my own, often tracing the same crimes with the same techniques, but from different points of view and reaching different conclusions.
From April, 2011 I ran the blog The Libyan Civil War: Critical Views, using video evidence especially to untangle some blatant rebel lies. At the time, Higgins was working the comments section at the Guardian as Brown Moses (using for an avatar the Francis Bacon painting sampled at left), gaining a reputation for research-based comments supporting the Guardian's pro-opposition news coverage. (the Huffington Post lauds his 4,500 comments there - the Guardian later sponsors a prominent seminar to teach his methods to more people).
We both took a keen interest in Syria developments, looking into that and later both turning to events in Ukraine. I had just teamed with Petri Krohn and others in the "Citizen's Investigation into War Crimes in Libya" not long before we switched to Syria and started gathering more collaborators at the research wiki A Closer Look On Syria (ACLOS). Higgins eventually grew a team now called or working at "Bellingcat" and getting media props for what the group calls "the examination of open source material overlooked by other organisations," especially making use of available video evidence, geolocated. That's exactly what we do, on all these same subjects. We're not following him/them, or vice-versa (that I know of), just riding two sides of the same geopolitical waves.
How we took our turns to focus on Syria over Libya in a dedicated new spot is interesting - we both switched gears at news of the Houla Massacre, widely heralded as "a turning point" for the world, and for both of us.
After calling it a turning point myself, I mostly moved away from Blogspot to help with ACLOS. Petri, "CE" and I kept working the case in a collaborative effort, with sub-pages, both sets of alleged witnesses, the video record, victim lists, timeline etc. It took a while, as we worked on other things (including a site re-location), but Houla remained a priority and eventually we solved the case, more or less. By year's end we had a good grasp and the May 2013 report, and especially in the July 2014 report, presented some of the best arguments - especially the geo-located videos, timed by sunlight angles, compared with other evidence, that illustrate the victorious rebel/terrorist offensive that left them in control of the massacre area during the massacre. That, we think, is how they got access to all the bodies.
Now in comparison...
Higgins' Record on Houla (so far)
Higgins had joined me at Blogspot at his soon-famous Brown Moses blog in late March, 2012. He at first covered the phone-hacking scandal and Leveson inquiry, and passing on some Syria video lists and lightly tackling "Syrian regime propaganda." He got more serious about Syria after May 25, his career reportedly taking an early boost from covering the massacre. As Syria Deeply explained in 2013:
A turning point came when Higgins live-blogged the Houla massacre, which unfolded near Homs last summer. “There was a massive amount of info coming from Twitter and Facebook,” he says, “so I decided to live blog it. And that was reported on NPR, and then after that I got lots of followers on Twitter and people [began] reading the blog. I set targets to do stuff. I’m competitive, so I like to be able to build up an audience.”He started at the Brown Moses blog with an early and impressive list of videos from the scene, both of the dead and the supposed regime shelling, all the emotion-loaded scenes with little to no analysis, (see all posts labeled Houla Massacre) He made some sound findings; for example, he confirmed there had been children executed, besides the shelling (that was controversial for a moment). Children's hands were bound, yes, but it wasn't a clue; it's post-mortem, to make body handling easier (tied in front is no good to bind living people anyway).
Some early limits on his investigation: That rebels so easily got the bodies - as they usually do - is a clue he apparently missed the implication of. "Survivors" are cited, but it was never known they were really that. We tried to stick with "alleged witnesses/survivors" for everyone. It can now be seen the story those alleged survivors told clashes with the video evidence, and sometimes with itself.
The other set of alleged witnesses agree with the visual record of a rebel victory. For whatever that's worth... And it was in early June that controversy emerged, driven by those new and detailed witness accounts of a rebel assault followed by punitive killings of government loyalists and converts to Shi'ism. This gained an unusually high media profile, including Rainer Hermann's famous but flawed article in German daily Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung (FAZ). UN Monitor mission chief Robert Mood also mentioned on June 15 that his team had spoken to alleged witnesses in al-Houla and heard two differing stories. The UN's investigators released a report June 27 acknowledging two different stories of the events, which it was unable to decide between. It was an awkward month for anyone hoping for easy blame on Assad and his "Shabiha."
Higgins had paused his Houla coverage after a May 30 post on fresh shelling video (which, we can now see, came after a rebel takeover on May 25). By posts, it seems he stayed quiet into June, as if awaiting guidance. Only on the 28th did he come back with one final word, a re-post of someone else's words: "The Holy See And Senior Catholic Church Members Criticise Pro-Assad Clergy" . Perhaps to avoid the execution of Christian hostages in al-Qusayr, senior clergy announced that Syrian Christians suffered no problems from the rebels in Syria. They included for criticism one Mother Agnes Mariam of the mixed reliability, who did provide one or two of the several alleged witnesses countering the rebel claims, allegedly sheltering at her convent after fleeing the rebel conquest. This spurred Higgins to note at the end:
Mother Agnes Mariam claims about the Houla massacre were also basis of a controversial article in the German newspaper FAZ which has resulted in an ongoing spat between John Rosenthal and Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi and Phillip Smyth, which in the light of the latest comments from the Catholic Church suggests John Rosenthal may owe the other two an apology. Hopefully the media will take some time to reflect on what has been said about these individuals at the ROACO, and treat their claims with more cynicism in the future.This was his only word about the witness-based controversy, in his only post after its emergence. With that opportunity to put down the wrong messenger and thus the supposed message, he promptly flaked out on this transformative event. He never bothered to analyze the videos or start correlating things to make full sense of it. He wasn't the one to - for example - correctly identify one regime attack weapon as a rebel dude firing an RPG over and over just south of the central security post, around 6:15 PM.
As far as I can tell from a quick look, the lauded citizen investigator did not re-visit the subject of the Houla Massacre during the many months our work expanded the knowledge base. The new Bellingcat site doesn't yet have anything new on it either. And they have a team now.
Brown Moses had to move on to other things and never return. Why? As he said to Syria Deeply, specifically in connection with Houla, "I’m competitive, so I like to be able to build up an audience." Hey, me too! My article is a consistent #2 to the Wikipedia article in a Google search for Houla Massacre, while Higgins' pale old video lists no longer registers. So far, the CIWCL-ACLOS investigation I've led (at least in summation and promotion) easily wins this one-sided competition. Brown Moses' flakiness and calls for "cynicism" were no match for our solving the Houla Massacre case.
The only way for Higgins to turn that back, which risks giving me/us more of an audience, is to address the challenge (see below), review the video case, and weigh in with a concrete opinion on the matter. I've already asked him once about some kind of peer review, but he expressed disinterest, citing time constraints. That's understandable, but not good enough. So after some time to let us both prepare, he goes now on the hook.
I know you're a perceptive cat and can likely sense what's in store, maybe from the start. I'm sure your main inclination is to continue letting this one lie. I encourage you to confront it openly instead. Run the risk of showing you can work outside the corporate controlled box and follow the video clues, even in this case where it's inconvenient. We've seen these last 29 months that you can ignore the Taldou evidence. Let's see a different skill now.
The Challenge: review the 2014 report (direct PDF link) and somewhere (comments here is best) give your informed opinion. The only immediate action required: some public acknowledgment, initial assessment, letting me know what to expect and when. Thisshould be submitted as soon as possible in a comment below.
Deadline: it will be the end of Tuesday, December 16, before I consider you as seeming to doge the issue. I'll be annoyed if so. Just a quick word at first is all we need. The rest, the actual review, we need as well, but with a negotiable schedule.
- You'll need to have a decent look, maybe watch the videos, doubt the locale, find a better one, or question the significance of the military actions we've placed and timed, etc. If possible. If not, acknowledgments would be good.
- I'd love to hear from Bellingcat/other affiliates as well, doing some of the analytical work and sharing it. But I need a Brown Moses overview in the end, public and verifiable. We're getting you back on the record on this subject, okay?
- I'm accepting related comments here (other readers not working with Eliot can take it to the general challenge space post).
-If you think the Houla Massacre, with the executed children is important enough to revive on Bellingcat, or your old blog, or wherever, that works probably even better. But pointers left with me, preferably in comments right below, would be best. Keeping it all in blog comments, minimal, and agreeable is probably the best and most low-key option. (note Dec. 13 - there's also a Twitter track I expect will remain silent)
- the core video evidence is all that really matters. If time is limited, ignore the last sections and focus on the "exhibits" - who's shooting, where, when, what's burning, etc. Other issues are fair to critique, but not as a replacement for reviewing the video record and our reading of it.
- In the end, I need to hear what's wrong with our case, what's right with it, what now seems to you the best supported narrative? We started with very different views, and after re-visiting it, who should change viewpoints?
- No set time-frame. Done the best way, it could be a bit of a project, preferably with a team. But a swift and public initial response is needed (there is also an e-mail track open, but the aim is public word)
- No need - necessarily - for a full review of every point, nor for being totally decisive (especially at first)
- I intend to be polite and engaging (once we're moving), and look forward to hearing from/working with you and hopefully some of the team members I don't know yet (that's all of them, I think, and it's my bad - I'm almost anti-social media)
- We have made errors - until just before the 2014 report we were citing the wrong times, forgetting daylight savings time. It didn't change anything, but maybe there are other mistakes at work you could spot.
More! Dec. 14
honey-butter: I should note that our video review got its start, long ago, building off the Brown Moses list, which was and remains valuable. But ... it's just a list. It fell to us to do the reading, and then lobbying for a simple review of that.
Inspired by recent tweets (none responding to me...) re: ShamiWitness: "I can see it now" Time to think about re-thinking things you still can't see? It's all assembled for ease of review.
re: Syrian Girl comments...in 29 months you couldn't scrape up "5 minutes" to review the Houla evidence, ever? Since I first asked you for peer review about six months ago, you couldn't take "5 minutes"? Will you take just one minute before the end of Tuesday to say, if nothing else, "okay, I'll review it, but not right now because blah blah"? Even later on, "5 minutes" would be wrong, but maybe 45 minutes total could achieve a decent overview to let you choose your position wisely.
Above I described you as perceptive, meaning intuitive. I don't know that. Maybe. What matters more is what I've noticed whenever I have to agree with a Higgins/Bellingcat visual match. It's usually right (in the cases I've double-checked). And I think you're aware that we're pretty good at it too, and unlikely to put up something that could instantly be shown wrong, like a bad geo-location call. As I just worded it elsewhere:
He's all but sure to refuse the challenge because he knows when you read videos right, it can't be shown wrong, and he knows we have it right. He won't want to look stupid denying the undeniable, can't be caught agreeing with it, and has himself boxed into irrelevant silence. History will have to move on without him then, if he can't break down that cardboard box of his own construction.
Your call, Mr. Higgins. December 16, deadline: UK I think is 8 hours ahead of me, so it will be just about the deadline, Eliot, and still no word. So, I'll extend the deadline, to the end of Saturday. Four days where you can't say I timed you out. Maybe with more time to get over the annoyance you'll agree it's time to think ahead to your credibility down the road, and get over your fears of stepping off the empire's script just this once. And I can't say there's nothing to be afraid of. You'd know better than me what kind of mental shackles and tortures await you if you ever assist in overturning a lie this important. Presumably nothing would be risked past public reputation, but you'd think that might get a boost from a mixed record where you can blame both sides. But oh yeah, one side has to be guilty of token crimes only, and Houla ain't token ... Still thinking you'll chicken out in total silence, but giving you a bit more time to prove otherwise.
December 21, Sunday The deadline is necessary to creating "pressure." It means nothing if it's not enforced. The second deadline has come and gone, and still no public word. He couldn't spare one minute to let us know if he'll ever have the minutes for a review, or what. I still welcome any reaction, but I'm not holding my breath which means, in this case, he must now be considered WEAK.