An email sent on November 12 2020 by an officer within Amsterdam’s National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV) shows a Bellingcat investigation was intentionally shared with the agency prior to publication, so as to assist the Dutch spooks in shaping media strategies and messaging following its release. The revealing communication is irrefutable proof of the cozy relationship the self-styled “independent investigative collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists” enjoys with Western intelligence services.
In the message, marked “high importance,” the undisclosed author explained that Bellingcat would soon publish research amounting to a deeply libelous attack on independent journalists and researchers, who challenged the mainstream narrative surrounding Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. As such, the Dutch intelligence officer wrote, “it is probably smart to put together interdepartmental wording for this already”:
“Because the article highlights several sides (MH17 but also COVID19) it is probably wise to wait a while and see if; a. the mainstream media pick it up; b. from which angle the media pick up and highlight it (MH17 or COVID); c. from this angle to determine the wording and therefore which department is in the lead; d. coordinate the language as much as possible interdepartmentally.”
A ‘bonanza’ of Western intel propaganda
The article in question, entitled “The GRU’s MH17 Disinformation Operations Part 1: The Bonanza Media Project,” was framed as an investigation into a now-defunct independent media venture named Bonanza Media which was established by Russian journalist Yana Yerlashova with the help of freelance Dutch researcher Max Van der Werff.
Much of Bonanza’s work challenged Western assertions that separatist fighters in Donbass shot down MH17 with a Buk surface-to-air missile system provided to them by the Russian military. Ukrainian officials began pushing that narrative, citing audio recordings they claimed to have intercepted alongside material purportedly found on social media implicating the separatists, even before Malaysia Airlines publicly announced it had lost contact with the plane.
Bellingcat, which serendipitously launched just days before the downing of MH17, came to prominence by immediately seizing on this deluge of carefully-curated and potentially falsified information. With amazing speed, the organization claimed to have precisely mapped out what happened that fateful day, and exactly how it occurred. Despite its relative inexperience and opaque organizational structure, its findings were accepted without a shred of scrutiny by Western journalists, lawmakers, pundits, and the official Dutch MH17 tribunal, which concluded in November 2022.
Bonanza Media’s film, “MH17 – Call for Justice”, features interviews with witnesses on-the-ground that day and Malaysian government officials who did not accept the official story, but doesn’t rule out the possibility of Russian culpability altogether. However, the documentary presented a substantial challenge to Bellingcat’s version of events – which also happened to align neatly with the official narrative. In 2020, Bonanza also published leaked documents confidentially submitted to the tribunal. This included Dutch intelligence files recording that while many Ukrainian Buk systems had been spotted in eastern Ukraine, Russian equivalents were nowhere to be seen.
Evidently, Bellingcat and its founder, Eliot Higgins, were displeased with their results. As Dutch freelance journalist Eric van de Beek wrote in 2020, “because it was impossible for Bellingcat to discredit Van der Werff on the basis of the well-researched content featured on his blog and in his recent documentary, Eliot Higgins opted to wage a campaign of misinformation.”
Bellingcat’s 2020 investigation into the group strongly insinuated Bonanza was being run by Russia’s GRU, heavily implied their investigations were edited by the agency’s operatives before publication, and suggested its contributors were on the Kremlin’s payroll. The group claimed their conclusions were “based on emails from the mailboxes of two senior GRU officers obtained by a Russian hacktivist group and independently authenticated by us.”
Strict British libel laws may have prevented the group from making direct allegations to this effect, but the Dutch media had no such qualms, and the investigation triggered a wave of smears in major local publications. One daily newspaper headlined as fact: “Dutch MH17-blogger directed by Russian secret service.” Another, which directly asserted that “Van der Werff worked on the orders of the Russian military intelligence service GRU,” is currently being sued by the researcher regarding the unproven claim.
Strikingly, throughout this period not a single mainstream journalist questioned how Bellingcat acquired the highly sensitive trove of documents upon which its investigation depended. On top of confidential GRU emails, Bellingcat somehow apparently acquired phone data showing calls between purported Russian intelligence officials and cell tower data tracking their movements, which it claimed pinpointed their locations to GRU headquarters in Moscow. None of this information is remotely “open source,” and since it wasn’t shared publicly, it can’t be independently verified.
Oddly, in one passage, Bellingcat stated “it is not clear who requested or suggested” changes to a Bonanza article it alleged were made after the piece was submitted to the GRU, before publication. One might think ascertaining this would be simple, given the vast amount of highly incriminating evidence to which Bellingcat had exclusive access. Perhaps British libel laws were a deterrent to accusing the GRU — but why would this be the case if the material was authentic, and defending it in court was no issue?
MH17 verdict undermines Bellingcat
The newly-released NCTV email strongly suggests Bellingcat’s investigation into Bonanza was the product of a Western intelligence information operation, intended to steer the MH17 tribunal in a very specific direction — namely, towards the defendants’ guilt. Sure enough, Russian nationals Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy, and Donbas separatist Leonid Kharchenko, were convicted in absentia for the murder of MH17’s 283 passengers and 15 crew members, the court ruling they arranged the transfer of the Buk surface-to-air missile system that reportedly struck the plane.
Meanwhile, the only defendant to seek legal representation and give testimony during the trial, Oleg Pulatov, was acquitted on all charges. The court found there was “no indication” he was involved in obtaining the missile system, that he could have prevented its use, or that he was involved in transporting it to another location after the incident. Prosecutors announced they will not appeal the verdict.
The response by the normally brash Higgins to the Dutch court’s judgment was uncharacteristically muted. In an otherwise self-congratulatory Twitter thread, he merely noted that “Pulatov is acquitted, the rest are found guilty.” There was no explanation for why the defendant was found innocent, nor any analysis of the ruling’s potential implications for Bellingcat’s MH17 investigations.
Higgins and his crack squad of laptop jockeys were understandably embarrassed on these counts. Not least because the Bellingcat chief repeatedly mocked Pulatov and his lawyers during the tribunal, suggesting his conviction was a fait accompli, and sneering when the defendant testified accusations of responsibility for MH17 resulted in adverse personal consequences for him. A June 2020 Bellingcat investigation lambasted Pulatov’s testimony, suggesting his defense strategy was “unlikely to win Mr. Pulatov the court’s sympathies.”
A sordid history of smears
Bellingcat’s confirmed collusion with NCTV raises obvious questions about whether the organization’s relentless attacks on journalists and researchers who do not toe the official national security line are also directly coordinated with, and on behalf of, Western intelligence agencies. In many cases, Bellingcat’s attacks have had real-world consequences for its targets.
For example, Bellingcat has over many years attempted to destroy the career of MIT emeritus professor Theodore Postol, who questioned official investigations into alleged chemical strikes in Syria. In 2019, Bellingcat pressured a science journal to prevent Postol from publishing an academic paper challenging the results of a UN probe into the alleged 2017 Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack which blamed the Syrian government on the basis of supposed “computational forensic analysis.”
Throughout the Syrian conflict, Bellingcat published investigations blaming government forces for chemical weapons attacks, typically within hours of them allegedly happening. These findings were invariably based in part on material provided to the organization by British intelligence constructs on-the-ground, such as the bogus humanitarian group known as the White Helmets. In the immediate aftermath of the notorious April 2018 Douma incident, which OPCW whistleblowers suggest was staged, Higgins tweeted an exclusive photo of one of the cylinders purportedly used in the strike.
The post was abruptly deleted though, perhaps because the White Helmets subsequently shared a photo of the same site in which the same cylinder was in a different position. Proof positive the scene had been manipulated by those staging it. Dissident British academics who have helped expose Douma and other chemical weapons strikes in Syria as opposition-executed false flags – in which British intelligence was frequently complicit – have likewise been relentlessly targeted by Bellingcat.
Elsewhere, Bellingcat fabricated and misrepresented evidence to smear independent Bulgarian journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva as a potential GRU asset. Meanwhile, the organization has played a lead role in disseminating and “verifying” dubious, if not outright fraudulent, material and claims related to the Ukraine conflict throughout its duration. Investigations by The Grayzone strongly suggest Bellingcat operatives were directly implicated in a Ukrainian intelligence operation gone wrong, which got Kiev’s forces killed.
CIA veterans have openly praised Bellingcat for stating publicly what spy agencies cannot. In a December 2020 Foreign Policy article entitled, “Bellingcat Can Say What U.S. Intelligence Can’t,” the CIA’s former deputy chief of operations for Europe and Eurasia was quoted as saying:
“I don’t want to be too dramatic, but we love this. Whenever we had to talk to our liaison partners… instead of trying to have things cleared or worry about classification issues, you could just reference their work.”
Accordingly, leaked files exposing the internal workings of Integrity Initiative, a British intelligence black propaganda operation tasked with ginning up conflict with Russia to pad the UK’s defense budget, were rife with references to Bellingcat. As an internal document which describes one of the group’s goals as “increasing the impact of effective organisations currently analysing Russian activities” notes, “we already do this [emphasis added] with… Bellingcat.”
As a result of such excerpts, this journalist repeatedly asked Higgins about the nature of his and his organization’s relationship with the Integrity Initiative. Though initially evasive, in March 2020 Higgins finally denied any association in an email that concluded with an ominous threat:
“The funny thing is your shitty reporting on the matter had [sic] proven quite useful to us, looking forward to you finding out how, try not to feel too bad.”
Almost four years later, this journalist is still waiting to learn what Higgins and his collaborators in Western spy agencies have cooked up to make me “feel bad.” Given the confirmed interest of British intelligence in sabotaging this outlet, and the crazed allegations put to me by the counter-terror police who detained me in London this May, he may have already made good on his threat.
Eliot Higgins and Bellingcat were approached for comment, but did not respond by the time of publication.