All posts by citizenevidencelab

How open-source investigation methods helped expose the hidden US war in Somalia

Research published by Amnesty International in March 2019,  The Hidden US War in Somalia, details how 14 civilians were killed and eight more injured in just five of more than 100 strikes carried out in the country in the past two years. These five incidents were carried out with Reaper drones and manned aircraft in Lower Shabelle, a region largely under Al-Shabaab control outside the Somali capital Mogadishu. The methodology used to find and corroborate this research also entailed using Amnesty Internationals’ Digital Verification Corps – which was asked to find any information of strikes it could from online sources.  In this post, two of our DVC volunteers from the Human Rights Center at UC, Berkeley, Dominique Lewis and Danielle Kaye, explain how the steps they took to discover some of the the content that helped in this report.

Context: U.S. airstrikes in Somalia

Since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, United States forces have conducted more than 100 airstrikes in Somalia as a part of its counterterrorism operations against the armed group Al-Shabaab. The number of US airstrikes in Somalia has tripled under the Trump administration.

Amid the increase in air strikes, media reports reveal that the US government has changed its rules on the use of lethal force in counterterrorism operations, effectively allowing US forces to target Al-Shabaab fighters with less regard for putting  civilians at risk.

While US Africa Command (AFRICOM) claims that no civilians have been killed by US airstrikes in Somalia under President Trump, media and NGO reports have pointed to civilian casualties.

Amnesty International’s Crisis Response team asked us to use open source investigative methods to trawl social media and gather user-generated content to corroborate information about civilians killed by US strikes. Our open source investigation allowed us to collect information from local news outlets, journalists, and activists.

Methods

Amnesty International provided our team with a list of the dates and locations of potential US drone strikes in Somalia from April 2017 to December 2018, along with the alleged number of civilian casualties and limited information about the identities of those killed. Our goal was to gather news articles and user-generated content on social media platforms, most notably Twitter and Facebook, to corroborate the information provided about each drone strike.

Here we will outline our process for gathering information about an airstrike for which we received the following information:

Date: 2 August, 2018

Region: Gobaale, Beledul-Amin

Further Context: The regional manager of the Hormuud Telecommunications Company might have been found dead.

Preliminary research

Before turning to social media platforms, we conducted general Google searches for news articles about the air strikes in order to begin corroborating the information provided. We also used these news articles to gain more knowledge about the US air strikes in Somalia and the relationship between the US and Somali governments. It is crucial that before we start a project, we have a solid understanding of the situation we are investigating.

For the air strike that was reported to have occurred on 2 August, 2018 in the Beledul-Amin region of Somalia, we conducted a Google search for “U.S. airstrike August 2 2018.” This led us to a timeline compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Reporting that listed a US drone strike that occurred on that date.

Screenshot 2019-03-21 at 15.10.35

The article states that the 2 August airstrike took place 74 miles northwest of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. We confirmed that the region of Beledul-Amin — which can also be written as Beled-Amin — is located northwest of Mogadishu.

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(screenshot from Mapcarta)

Twitter discovery

After news sources corroborated the provided information about the date and location of the airstrike, we began to gather user-generated information about the strike. First, we turned to Tweetdeck — a Twitter-based dashboard application that allowed us to create search columns related to the strike in question.

Our first step was to create new Tweetdeck columns with time parameters set to 2 August, 2018. We began our Twitter discovery by using general search terms in English such as “Somalia airstrike” and “Somalia strike,” as well as terms from the information provided about the civilian allegedly killed (“Hormuud”).

These search terms allowed us to find a tweet from Mogadishu Update, a self-identified freelance journalist, reporting on the death of a Hormuud employee. The tweet claims that at least two other civilians were killed in the 2 August airstrike.

We also discovered a tweet from Twitter user Halgan Media, an independent Somali news outlet according to their website. The tweet states that two engineers and their driver were killed in the drone strike on 2 August. The tweet cites the location of the strike as Gooballe, which we believe is a different spelling of the village name provided by Amnesty International: “Gobanle.”

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(screenshot from Tweetdeck)

Expanding our search terms

Since using only English search terms excludes a great deal of Twitter content published in Somali, we broadened the scope of our project by using Somali search terms provided by Amnesty’s Somalia researcher. For instance, we searched “duqayn” — the Somali word for “strike” — and came across a tweet in Somali, posted on 2 August, that translates to: “US drone strike killed 3 people.”

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(screenshot from Tweetdeck)

This tweet supports the information that at least three individuals were killed in the air strike that was found in previous tweets.

Facebook discovery

Similar to searching for user-generated content on Twitter through Tweetdeck, we wanted to search for user-generated content on Facebook. However, unlike Twitter, Facebook does not have an advanced search function for their platform. This lead us to using alternative ways outside of the Facebook platform to discover content.

The website whopostedwhat.com is one of the most useful tools to search on Facebook. This allowed us to search all public Facebook posts on a specific day with a key term. Thus, for our strike in question, we selected “2 August 2018” as the specific date and searched “Somalia Airstrike” as the key term.

Screenshot 2019-03-21 at 15.15.17

(screenshot from Whopostedwhat.com)

However, this search and other searches in English did not yield any results. We then began to use Somali key terms, hoping that they would generate results for us. After several failed attempts, we finally had luck with a Somali word for strike “duqayn”. This search term generated one Facebook post that led us to this website that discussed the US strikes in Somalia on 2 August, 2018.

Screenshot 2019-03-21 at 15.15.50

(screenshot from Whopostedwhat.com)

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(results from Whopostedwhat.com with search term “duqayn”)

This article mentions that a well-known businessman from the Hormuud Telecommunications Company was killed by an air strike on 2 August 2018. The article also states that the air strike most likely occurred in, or in between, the Goobaalle (potentially another way to spell Gobanle, as previously noted) and Balad-Amin districts. Thus, this article corroborated information about the alleged air strike.

Taken by itself the user-generated information we gathered did not allow us to conclude with certainty that civilians were killed in the US airstrikes, but it did help to support this claim by providing reports of civilian casualties from local sources. And Amnesty International used it as part of an in-depth investigation that went on to unearth credible evidence that five separate US strikes killed 14 civilians, and injured eight more, in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region.

Dominique Lewis is an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), where she led this project through UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center’s Investigation Lab on the Digital Verifications Corps team. Danielle Kaye is a researcher on the Digital Verification Corps team.

Tracking French military vehicles in Egypt

Amnesty International has found evidence of Egyptian security forces using French-supplied Sherpas and MIDS vehicles to violently crush dissent in the country between 2012 and 2015.  Part of this research involved Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps – a network of volunteers trained in social media verification based at universities around the world.  DVC members at the University of California, Berkeley and the Universiy of Toronto analysed over 20 hours of video footage and several hundred photos of events in the country.  The audiovisual material that the DVC teams verified formed an integral part of Amnesty International’s report – Egypt: How French arms were used to crush dissent – that outlines these findings.

Nickie Lewis, DVC lab manager at the University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, explains how one of these videos was analysed.

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Open source information was an integral part of the methodology used in an investigation by Amnesty International to show that armored personnel carriers supplied by France were used with deadly effect by the Egyptian security forces to violently and repeatedly disperse protests and crush dissent in the country between 2012 and 2015.

In our investigation open source information discovery and verification techniques were key.  This was a year-long investigation to show that Sherpas and MIDS vehicles supplied by France were used during some of the bloodiest incidents of internal repression in the Egypt since 2012. To do this, we needed to verify  hundreds of videos and images posted to social media sites, alongside news organizations’ reporting.

On 14 August 2013, just over a month since Mohamed Morsi had been ousted as Egypt’s president, security forces used grossly excessive lethal force to disperse two sit-ins by the former head of state’s supporters in Cairo and Giza. It is believed that Egyptian security forces killed up to 1,000 people that day. Security forces began the dispersal at around 6 am, but took several hours to disperse the largest sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo. To do so, the security forces used tear gas, shotguns and live ammunition. Video cameras captured this violence, including one video filmed along Youssef Abbas street in Nasr City near El Zohour Mosque – very close to the Rabaa Square. In this video, a Sherpa LS can be seen being used to support the deployment of the central security forces – with police officers clearly visible firing on demonstrators.

In this post, we focus on this video as a case study to demonstrate how the Digital Verification Corps verifies content, which was done by identifying the where, when, who and what of each video mentioned in the report.

WHERE

One of the most challenging elements of verification is locating where a video was captured. This is known to open source investigators as geolocation. To do this, the investigator will scour the content for notable features – this can be building structures and fixtures or business and street signs. In this video, the notable features include a railroad track that appeared in the video at 1:20.

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Image 1: Railroad

At 4:27 into the video, a mosque it can be seen.

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Image 2: Mosque (yellow) and minarets (purple)

Cairo is a megatropolis. If we searched on the tool we use the most for geolocation – Google Earth Pro – looking at all the mosques of Cairo to find these particular structures, we would have to look for hours, trying to find the metaphorical needle in a haystack. We could save ourselves time by narrowing down the geographic region of where the events took place in Cairo. Working with the assumption that the video was taken on August 14 in 2013 in or near Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, we studied the satellite imagery around the square in Google Earth with the hope of finding either the train tracks, or the mosque. The Google Earth search directed us to the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque, as shown below, which narrowed our region of concern.

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Image 3: Screen shot from Google Earth Pro showing Rabaa Al Adawiah Mosque, Cairo (image from 07-May-2018)

We then searched around the surrounding area of the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque to find those notable features. We saw a circular shape on the map, and when we zoomed in, we believed that it was the mosque and the green-roofed building.

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Image 4: Mosque (marked in blue) from image 2

We referred back to the video and confirmed that it was the mosque and building shown in the video, by identifying the green circular roof and pointed feature on top of the one building next to a minaret. The GPS coordinates of this mosque are 30.069245, 31.318389. We can then ascertain that this video and the events depicted in it, occurred around this area.

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Image 5: Side-by-side comparison of the mosque with satellite imagery from Google Earth Pro and the video

WHO

It is not enough to just know the location of the video; it is as equally important to verify and identify the groups of individuals present in the video. We also had to confirm that Egyptian security forces were present around our geolocated area on 14 August 2013.

As with geolocation, we watched the video to spot uniformed officers. Once we found these, we looked at these officers’ uniforms to identify distinct accessories or unique characteristics of their outfits that we could use to verify that they indeed belonged to the Egyptian security forces. At 1:23 in the video, we see officers dressed in all black uniforms with a distinct mark on their right arm. About 20 seconds later, we see one of these officers turn to reveal the word “Police” (in Latin script) written on their back.

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Image 6: screen shot security officers
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Image 7: screen shot uniformed police officer

When we were learning about the political context of the video, we knew came across several images from news articles that helped us identify these men as Egyptian security forces. However to corroborate those articles, we did an internet search of “Egyptian Police August 14, 2013” for more images. We came across an image from a BBC article, which shows a man in all black with the patch on his shoulder that says, Egyptian Police. However, the screenshot from the video is not clear enough for us to identify if it is the same patch from the BBC article’s image. Yet, the fact that these men were next to the man with “Police” written on his back and all are participating in the same act– shooting — lead us to conclude that these men were all part of the Egyptian police or security forces.

We see these men, or men dressed similarly to them, appear in the video again at 6:00 minutes, which will become relevant in the WHAT section of this post.

 

WHEN

We also had to be sure that this video was filmed on the date we are told it is. For this video, YouTube stated that the video was uploaded on August 14 2013 and the uploader stated in the caption that the video displays events from August 14, 2013. However, this information alone is not enough, we need to verify that this video took place on August 14, 2013 with corroborating evidence. We performed an internet search of “Cairo, Egypt August 14 2013 news” to explore if reliable news organizations covered events on this day. That search yielded results to articles from the New York Times, the Guardian and Reuters, all of which reported on Egyptian security forces shooting – and killing civilians – near the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square on 14 August, 2013.

WHAT

As briefly mentioned above, some of the vehicles that he Egyptian army used that were shown in the video were from the French manufacturing company, Renault Trucks Defense*. It is important to note that other armored vehicles present in the video were Egyptian manufactured. Again, when we watched through the video we came across multiple armored vehicles, but for the sake of brevity here, we will go through the steps on how to verify a single armored vehicle in the video.

At around 6 minutes into the video, the officers identified as being in part of the Egyptian security forces are seen next to two large vehicles. Here, we identify the smaller green vehicle in the screenshot below.

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Image 8: screen shot green armored vehicle

The verification process for vehicles is similar to geolocation.  The goal is to identify the distinct features of the small green vehicle to then try to find and match those distinct features with a named vehicle from reliable sources. We were unfamiliar with international military vehicle models, so we resorted to an internet search to help. At first, we chose “Egyptian army vehicles” thinking that it would provide a list of vehicles that the Egyptian government has used in the 21st century. However, no such website with that specific information existed.

Next, we decided to broaden the search and chose the phrase “Military and Army Vehicles”, which provided this website that lists various of models. We diligently searched through this database, trying to find a vehicle that had similar features to the vehicle in the video. Truthfully, this work can only be done through trial and error, thus can take hours to do. However, we finally came across a vehicle that had a distinct feature coming off the top of the vehicle, two side mirrors, an angled windshield and similarly placed headlights. That website said that this vehicle was manufactured by Renault Trucks Defense [Renault Trucks Defense changed name to Arquus Defense in late May of 2018]. To double check the credibility of that website, we went to the Renault Trucks Defense website and found the vehicle on their site. Indeed, this vehicle in the video and the one from Renault Trucks Defense website both have the same features as shown in the coloured boxes below. The Renault Trucks Defense website states that this vehicle is a Sherpa Light Scout.

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Image 9: screen shot of Sherpa Light Scout from video compared to screen shot from Arquus Defence website

By verifying various aspects of  video and shown through this case study, the DVC team was able to demonstrate that the Egyptian security forces were using a French-manufactured armoured vehicle, Sherpa Light Scout, around the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo on 14 August 2013. This case study represents one of the ways that the DVC members conducted open source investigations to provide evidence of French armored vehicles being used by the Egyptian regime in various human rights violations.

For more on Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps, please see here and here.

DVC teams from the University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program contributed to the research on this project.  Youstina Youssef and Haley Willis managed the  Human Rights Investigations Lab/Digital Verification Corps team at UC, Berkeley and Bethanie Pascutto and Alexandria Matic led the team at the University of Toronto.

* This post was updated on October 23rd 2018 to reflect the teams and managers involved in the project.