Little-known UK site Bellingcat hunts online for scoops

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A little-known website that fingered two Russians with military intelligence backgrounds in the poisoning of an ex-spy derived its name from an old fable about mice discussing how best to deal with a hungry cat.

The mice decide that hanging a bell around its neck — “belling the cat” — is the solution, but none volunteers for the job. The investigators behind Bellingcat see themselves as the ones willing to take on dangerous tasks —in this case, exposing men accused of attempting a hit job.

The British website has scooped the rest of the media with its reports on the nerve agent attack that nearly killed the ex-spy and his daughter in England, providing evidence the Russians had identities far more intriguing than the aliases they used as supposed tourists.

Founded in 2014, Bellingcat is the brainchild of Eliot Higgins, a self-described citizen journalist. Its staff members and contributor dig through social media and open-source records to investigate crimes. The site’s published work also has focused on conflicts in the Middle East, including the war in Syria.

Its latest investigation went up Monday night, when Bellingcat reported that one of the suspects in the March poisoning was actually Alexander Mishkin, a military doctor who was awarded one of Russia’s highest honors by President Vladimir Putin. Bellingcat previously unmasked the other suspect as Col. Anatoly Chepiga, linking him as well to Russian military intelligence agency GRU.

British authorities charged both last month under their assumed names, saying at the time they thought the Russian men were not who they said they were. The British government has not confirmed the names published by Bellingcat, but officials have not challenged the investigative group’s findings.

Bellingcat said it worked with a Russian partner, the Insider, which was founded by Russian journalist and political activist Roman Dobrokhotov. The Insider’s publications have targeted official corruption, exposed fake news in state-funded media and unmasked Kremlin secrets.

When Bellingcat researchers started looking into the men accused of using the Soviet-developed Novichok to attack Sergei Skripal and his daughter, they had little to work with — only photographs of the suspects released by British police and the assumed names that they used to travel to England.

Bellingcat said it identified Mishkin using passport information, phone records, car registration records, other databases and interviews with people who knew him.

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AP writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.