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Syria’s open source researchers help Ukraine

But while in Syria, the field of online open-source research was only just evolving, in Ukraine it has matured.

Syria’s open source researchers help Ukraine

Men rescuing their children from the rubbles.


Russian attacks on Ukraine bear many similarities to those witnessed in Syria. In both countries, Russian bombs have hit civilian infrastructure, schools and kindergartens, hospitals and markets. Some of these incidents may qualify as war crimes under international humanitarian law.

In Ukraine and Syria, such incidents are being tracked by open-source researchers. The community of amateur and professional online investigators use freely available information — hence the name “open source” — to collect and verify a broad spectrum of incidents.

In Ukraine, open-source investigators are gathering videos posted to social media of missile attacks, counting destroyed tanks and collating the names of soldiers killed. Some investigators work remotely from anywhere in the world while others are in the country. Open-source investigators did similar over the past 11 years in Syria.

But while in Syria, the field of online open-source research was only just evolving, in Ukraine it has matured.

“Everything that happened in Syria, as well as what happened in Ukraine between 2014 and 2017, really laid the groundwork for what is happening today,” said Eliot Higgins, founder of one of the world’s leading open-source research organizations, Bellingcat. “It was basically in Syria where we learned all the processes we are now using with Ukraine. It’s also where we built a lot of the relationships we now have with the tech community, with accountability organisations, policymakers and others.”

Mnemonic, a Berlin-based non-profit, is playing a major part in these efforts. Mnemonic started off with the Syrian Archive, which was set up to preserve digital evidence of human rights violations during the Syrian war. The archive was founded in 2014 by Syrian journalist and digital security expert Hadi al-Khatib after he noticed activists did not have a central place to store videos and other material they collected in Syria. Potential evidence of war crimes was also being lost. Since then, al-Khatib and his team founded a Yemeni Archive, a Sudanese Archive and, as of this past month, began work on a Ukrainian Archive to store materials Bellingcat identifies as important.

It only took us a few days to set up the Ukraine Archive,” al-Khatib explained. “We knew how to do it and we know there are certain standards and protocols that need to be in place for preserving this material,” he said. If the digital material is to be used in court, the firm needs to be able to show where it came from and that it hasn’t been manipulated. “It took us years to get to that stage with material from Syria,” al-Khatib said. “We learned it all there.”

Additionally, al-Khatib pointed out that Mnemonic has already been training Ukrainian activists on how to work with raw material — it’s advice Syrian activists didn’t get until much later. There are other unhappy lessons open-source researchers learned from Syria. “When we saw cluster munitions being used in Ukraine, we recognissed them more easily,” al-Khatib said. “We knew them from Syria. We knew what they sounded like and how there are lots of different small explosions happening at the same time, in a random pattern.”

Thanks to Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure, hospitals and even farms in Syria, Mnemonic also established what al-Khatib calls “better pattern analysis.” He explained there are certain indicators that more or less show that, for example, a hospital was not accidentally hit by a Russian missile. You need to be able to prove intent, and we now have a clear workflow for that,” al-Khatib said.

This article was providedby Deutsche Welle

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