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“Chepiga” and “Boshirov” – what does Bellingcat actually tell us?

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“Chepiga”, Boshirov 2009 and Boshirov 2018

The alleged “citizen journalist” website, Bellingcat has, of course, recently published the results of its latest piece of alleged research on the “real identity” of one of the men accused (so far without any evidence) of attempting to poison Sergey Skripal and his daughter back in March 2018.

We’ve talked about Bellingcat, and its supposed founder, Eliot Higgins, before on OffG. Bellingcat’s work has been revealed on countless occasions to be both incredibly amateurish and incredibly biased toward a certain extreme neocon/neoliberal agenda.

Whether or not Higgins himself knows it, his outfit is almost certainly a front run by various intel agencies for the purpose of disseminating low-grade, and often fake or corrupted, data that the agencies and associated governments do not want to be associated with directly.

The stuff they put out is generally so bad it clearly isn’t intended to last very long under scrutiny. It’s function is apparently to provide a compliant and unquestioning media with disposable headlines that serve to create realities in the minds of equally compliant readers and consumers of “news” for long enough to push through short-term foreign policy objectives, generally involving ramping up hostilities with designated “enemy nations.”

Bellingcat’s sloppy, absurdly partisan and almost instantly discredited claims of having identified a Russian BUK in the hands of the Donbass rebels were trumpeted in the media as “proof” of Russian culpability in the shooting down of MH17 in good time to help justify the arming of Ukraine and the sanctioning of Russia. Their even more absurd “research” claiming to prove Syria’s use of chemical weapons was likewise timed to coincide with western government agenda and blasted all over the media just long enough to create an effect in the public mind and prepare us for a wider war.

And now, unsurprisingly, Bellingcat are here again, telling us they have “proved” one of the two Russian men caught on CCTV is working for Russian military intelligence.

Now, let’s be clear. For all we know Boshirov and Petrov could be in military intelligence. They could be anything for all we know, including ex-underwear salesmen like Higgins. We have no evidence about who these men are, beyond their own, as yet unproven claims.

But the question here isn’t ‘are they in Russian military intelligence’, the question is – has Bellingcat proved they are, or even shown us any solid evidence they are?

And the answer is – no. They haven’t. Not even close.

What Bellingcat actually did is this:

  1. They began with the a priori assumption the names the two men were using were fake and that they worked for Russian military intelligence or some other secret agency.
  2. In an attempt to locate an assumed ‘real identity’ for one of them – Ruslan Boshirov – they tried to locate more info on him using Google reverse-image searches and got nowhere
  3. They then typed “Ruslan Boshirov” into Russian online phone books and got nowhere.
  4. (At this point they stopped looking for Boshirov directly and – under the assumption that name was fake – started looking for ANY man of approximately the right age who may have connections with GRU. (We won’t discuss the methodological problems this raises, but do pause to consider them)).

  5. They approached some “anonymous sources” and asked where this still completely hypothetical GRU agent might theoretically have gone to school. These anon sources pointed them to a certain Russian military academy with the acronym “DVOKU”.
  6. They then guessed when the hypothetical agent might have hypothetically graduated and looked for yearbook photos that might resemble Ruslan Boshirov enough to be him under a different name. And got nowhere.
  7. (Well, to be fair they claim to have found “several possible but not certain” matches, and they did include a picture of one such, whom they admit probably isn’t Boshirov, but whose pic they include for “completeness of research process” (whatever that means)).

  8. At this point, having Googled themselves to a standstill, they had precisely nothing to indicate Boshirov was using a fake name, nothing to show he had ever attended military school and nothing to show he’d ever been linked to Russian intelligence in any way. But they had apparently stumbled on the name “Anatoliy Chepiga” that was “linked” to the search terms “Chechnya”, “DVOKU” and “hero of the Russian federation.”
  9. With nothing much else left to do, they allegedly googled this name – and again found nothing, but, using “leaked”(?) online “telephone databases”, the name “Anatoliy Vladimirovitch Chepiga” was found listed twice (in 2003, and 2012) in two locations. One of these addresses (2003) they claim is linked to the Russian military and Spetsnaz. They assumed these two references were to the same man and that this is the Anatoliy Chepiga named elsewhere as receiving the “hero of the Russian Federation medal.

So, at this point they have sketchy data to suggest some guy called Anatoliy Chepiga is real, about the right age to be an alter ego for Boshirov and in the military (possibly Spetsnaz). But they have absolutely nothing to show this Chepiga is anything to do with Ruslan Boshirov whatsoever. In fact, the likelihood that this one guy they allegedly randomly googled on an off-chance should just happen to be the real ID of Ruslan would be vanishingly remote.

It must have seemed at this point as if this narrative was going to be too thin and allusive even for Bellingcat to put out.

However right then their old friends the “anonymous sources” once again came to their rescue and – allegedly – gave them “extracts from the passport file” of Chepiga, including a photo (right), which is alleged to be of Chepiga.

Bellingcat claims this image proves Chepiga is Boshirov. It would be fair to say opinion remains divided over this conclusion. [See here, here and here.]

Chepiga’s physical reality has been independently established by the Russian media outlet Kommersant, who did the kind of journalism seemingly beyond most western outlets and went to talk to people in what was alleged to be Chepiga’s home town.

Opinion among those who apparently knew Chepiga seems divided about whether or not he’s potentially Boshirov. One person says they recognised Boshirov as Chepiga immediately on seeing him on the TV. Another says Boshirov can’t be Chepiga because the latter was almost totally bald when last seen by the witness ten years ago, and his face was notably different though the eyes are similar.

We currently have no independently verified second image of Chepiga for comparison. And the Russian Government denies that any Col. Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga has ever been awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation.

Let’s recap.

  1. Bellingcat has no information linking Boshirov with Russian intelligence and no evidence the name “Boshirov”is an assumed ID. He does allegedly have information linking a man called Chepiga with the Russian military and Spetsnaz.
  2. The only evidence Bellingcat claims connects Chepiga with Boshirov is this anonymously provided photograph.

So, currently the entire case for Boshirov being Chepiga rests on this photo. Nothing else in the avalanche of verbiage being created around this means anything at all.

The problem is this is an unsourced photo allegedly passed to Bellingcat by an unnamed insider source as being a photo of a Russian military intelligence officer named Chepiga. This image has some resemblance to Boshirov, true, but is by no means a perfect match and may well represent two different people even as is. And, of course, in this digital age, a single image without provenance means nothing. It could be real, sure, but it could equally be manipulated, or even entirely fake.

Is this a genuine photo of Anatoliy Chepiga? Currently no one knows. Is Ruslan Boshirov actually Anatoliy Chepiga? Maybe. In the broadest sense it can’t be ruled out. But the same could be said for almost any other Russian man of the right approximate age with a roughly approximate physical appearance.

The only way to verify this photo represents Chepiga and that Chepiga is or may be Boshirov is to provide a lot more additional data – which is all currently conspicuously absent.