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“He brings an incredible amount of attention to this,” says Peter N. Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has been working with Higgins. “The story about Croatian arms being supplied to the opposition – Elliot and I started noticing these weapons months before they hit the news.”
In just one year, Higgins has watched his <a href=”http://brown-moses.blogspot.com” target=”_blank”>Brown Moses Blog </a>become a must-read for journalists and analysts covering the crisis. He specializes in breaking news about new weapons being used in the conflict, usually by regime forces. Several months ago, the Syrian air force started dropping barrels of explosives out of its helicopters, which Higgins had been tracking. “People didn’t think a professional military would drop that kind of weapon,” he says. “But we have footage of an unexploded one on the ground, and of men pushing them out of the helicopters.”
He updates almost daily from his home in Leicester, in the East Midlands of England, monitoring nearly 500 YouTube channels per day and casing them for information while his baby daughter sleeps in the next room. It’s a laborious process, one that would try even the most fanatical mind – several hours in the morning, several hours in the afternoon, and another round in the evening.
“He has an obsessive-compulsive personality,” Bouckaert says. “And I don’t say that in a bad way, because you need to be obsessive to track and monitor these weapons. He came to my attention last summer, when we were first seeing the appearance of cluster bombs in Syria. He was one of the first people to identify the bombs as they first appeared. So we started to work together to see where they were being used, what types were being used.”
Since then, Higgins and HRW have established a full-blown collaboration on monitoring arms in Syria.
“There’s a tremendous amount of work that Elliot does behind the scenes following some 400 YouTube channels on a daily basis to try and identify the videos of relevance,” Bouckaert says. “And 90 percent of the work he does doesn’t end up on his blog, and there’s no one [else] who really provides us with the videos we need to analyze together to understand what’s happening on the ground.”
“I’ve gone as Brown Moses on the web for years, Higgins says, almost sheepishly, when reached by phone at home in England. “I thought no one would ever read the blog, so why bother putting effort into a new title?”
He’s had a busy day: in between video analysis sessions, he’s been out to buy a car seat for his daughter. There’s also the matter of working to get his site funded, now that he’s made it his full-time job. An <a href=”http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-brown-moses-blog” target=”_blank”>IndieGogo campaign</a> that launched earlier this month has given him almost £2,000, and he has enough to keep going for another few months. He’s also been approached by a literary agent keen to have him document his experiences in the cybersphere.
It’s an unlikely path for an army kid. Higgins’ father was in the royal air force; he spent his childhood moving around the country. Eventually he dropped out of Southampton University where, he puts it bluntly, “I didn’t like my course [of study.]” Jobs followed, including a stint as a payment processer at Barclays bank in London, but they didn’t speak to his intellect.
In 2011, an interest in the Middle East was piqued as he watched coverage of the Libyan conflict unfold. “I was following the events of the Arab Spring very loosely and discussing it in forums,” he says. “I was very interested in how much information was coming from social media. And I was very interested in Libya, reading everything I could about it. I started the blog because I wanted to record things that seemed important and then got overlooked. I was quite lucky that I had the support of some well-known journalists, but a lot of it was about using Twitter and social media to get my posts and information out there.”
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.”
With Houla came the realization “that there were hundreds of YouTube channels [belonging to] activists posting from various areas, and I began following them, and that’s when it became a more disciplined exercise.”
He runs the blog with a reporter’s precision. “I get up, see my wife and daughter, and then I’m on my laptop checking Twitter and videos on YouTube. I’m trying to put together one new blog post a day.” Much of his time is spent trying to unravel the mysterious appearances of weapons.
“Yesterday, I was sent a picture of an RPG-75 [a one-shot disposable anti-tank weapon, whose provenance the blog called unclear]. If that hadn’t been there,” Higgins says, “I would have written about the anti-material rifles that have been appearing. It’s [also] unclear where they’re coming from.”
The blog “is a reference for people, making sense of the sheer volume of information that’s coming out and trying to make sense of stuff. ‘Why are we seeing these things, and what are they?’”
Despite sifting through a vast number of videos that are in Arabic, Higgins doesn’t speak the language and uses Google Chrome, or one of his contacts, to translate.
As the conflict in Syria drags on (and as mainstream media, facing budget cuts and an indifferent audience, scales back its coverage), Brown Moses has become an indispensable reference for a devoted international corps of Syria watchers – journalists, policymakers, students and, of course, Syrians themselves. In recent months, his reporting has been discussed far and wide.
“The Croatian arms story was the biggest; I got a lot of attention from that,” he says. “The most recent one picked up by a lot of people – there was a post about Jabhat al-Nusra getting a lot of weapons. The one I did recently about the Czech weapons in Aleppo, the Czech Ministry of Defense has [now] been asked about that. The al-Bouti assassination video – there were a lot of questions about whether that was authentic. There’s a new scud-type warhead that’s been appearing, and that’s quite interesting.”
With power comes the occasional backlash. “Before the Croatian weapons story, I got a lot of people saying, ‘You’re pro-Free Syrian Army’,” Higgins laughs. “And now I get the opposite: ‘Why did you talk about Croatian weapons? You’re pro-Assad’.
(To donate to Higgins’s IndieGogo campaign, visit http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-brown-moses-blog)