A group of citizen journalists who post at a crowd-funded investigative blog may have discovered the location of a secret Islamic State training area in Iraq, using simple online tools like Google Earth and photos jihadi militants posted themselves.
The website Bellingcat, which published the revelation, earlier this month raised $85,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to launch the site, which encourages lay investigators to research conflict zones and other “issues that are being ignored.”
Users of the site together began by examining an Islamic State Twitter account and the photos of its training camp in Ninewa Province in Iraq that the group posted on Justpaste.it.
The citizen sleuths then examined this and other photos reportedly depicting an Islamic State martial arts lesson and march in which bridges were visible in the background. The photo also featured a child draped in the black jihadi flag.
Using Google Earth, they concluded that this area along the Tigris River in Mosul appeared to resemble the area, judging by the landmarks in the vicinity.
In other photos posted online by militants, a bridge could be seen.
Using Flash Earth, users of Bellingcat said they further narrowed down the location.
“In the entire area there’s only one possible location that matches, on the north side of the river, with the camera pointing south,” they observed.
The researchers then used Panoramio which tags locations of photos onto a map and matched up landmarks like insignias on a bridge and streetlights seen in photos to further pinpoint the location.
Here is the map with the site where those photos were tagged.
Eliot Higgins, a longtime citizen investigator who has been following jihadist fighters in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, told TheBlaze in an email that investigating international conflict zones is not as hard as one might think.
“My advice for non-professionals is just to try to do it themselves, once you get into the swing of things it’s not that hard to do, and with Bellingcat there’s lots of case studies and how-to guides to give them ideas and inspiration,” Higgins said.
His team is now working on ways to verify social media reports and is also engaged in a project “to investigate cross-border crime and corruption, training people how to do it themselves using open source material,” he said.