OSINT guide to verifying news from conflict zones

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Happy New Year 2020!

Well, not quite…

So far the start of the new decade has been underwhelming, to say the least.

With every major media outlet reporting on the story of a US drone strike that caused the death of an Iranian general in Iraq and the subsequent fallout, it is hard to be optimistic about the developments in the Middle East.

What is harder again is finding the truth in the torrent of media reports, many of which come with a strong bias and a hidden agenda, be it pro-Trump or anti-Trump, whatever the case may be.

So here is a quick demonstration on how we can independently try to verify the information. I am going to use some very recent news examples to keep this relevant.

1. Identify and search for the keywords

Every media report, even a biased, incomplete or a manipulated one, will contain important keywords.

Let’s use the following example, originally posted on Facebook:

… and the one from Twitter:

Here we have a piece of information, far from complete. Besides, the tone of the message attempts to diminish this incidents to a mere “attempt”.

So let’s see.

The main keywords here are:

“Kenya”, “Kenya Defence Forces”, “Manda Air Strip”, “security breach”, “terrorists”, “airstrip”.

Searching Google for those is fine, but some relevant results might not be included. This is why you should try using Google operators:

  • inurl:[keyword] – returns specific keyword search results for words present in the URL.
  • inposttitle:[keyword] – returns articles and blog posts that contain the keyword in their title.
  • related:[website name] – returns websites that Google deems to have content related to the one we searched for.
  • cache:[website name] – returns the latest cached version of a website available to Google. Particularly useful for retrieving content that was recently removed from the website but still resides in the cache.
  • Google advanced search – allows combining more detailed search methods, including multi-lingual searches.

Of course, Google is not the only search engine that can be used here. In fact, depending on things like the language and country of origin of the news report, other search engines could produce different or even better results.

With no relevance to our incident, but important to know:

For content in the Chinese language, one of the best results can be gained from Baidu; for the Russian language and content – Yandex, and so on.

Back to the topic.

2. Determine and verify the location

When viewing video footage or imagery from a news report, you can independently verify someĀ  locations using open source intelligence resources.

This is the realm of GEOINT, which stands for geospatial intelligence. GEOINT is all about gathering information derived from images in relation to a particular geographical location.

Example:

This footage was circulated in various news reports covering the Manda Air Strip attack.

At the first glance, it is not possible to verify this location, dominated by shrubbery and not much else.

Luckily, the two shacks marked with red squares might contain some hints.

We can quite easily locate the Manda Air Strip using Google Earth:

Visual examination of the map in every direction points us to a compound called Lappset HQ Lamu, situated to the south-east of the airstrip.

Google Earth imagery appears to be a little dated, as the facility looks like it’s still under construction. Plus, the nearby area appears to be more barren with barely any vegetation.

However, marked with a red circle we can see the outlines of two buildings that look similar to the ones from the footage, including their positioning in relation to each other…

A piece of video uploaded to Facebook appears to further confirm the location – notice these characteristic, long rectangular buildings within the compound:

3. Find and consult non-official sources

By this I mean searching through social media and looking for content uploaded by user accounts who are not affiliated with any media outlets.

You can use your keywords to search for specific phrases of interest ore hashtags.

You can also use websites like Tweeplers to access a real time map of tweets coming from a location of interest – I wrote about it here.

In this case, a number of other images of this incident have surfaced on Twitter, for instance this one (credit to @john_ngume):

Surprisingly (or not surprisingly?) enough, I was also able to find some content uploaded by what appeared to be social media accounts linked to Al-Shabaab, the Islamist terrorist group that claimed the responsibility for the attack.

I will only paste cropped out images as opposed to the whole posts, to avoid giving them publicity. Besides, their accounts have been reported and I expect them to be taken offline soon, if they haven’t been already by the time you read this.

The destroyed aircraft was quickly identified by aviation enthusiasts as USSOCOM / DHC-8 / N8200L.

A quick check of that aircraft using www.planespotters.net reveales an entry stating that the plane was “destroyed in an attack by Al-Shabaab terrorist organisation at Manda Bay”

4. Ask and answer questions; draw your own conclusions

The initial statement regarding the nature of this incident was brief, incomplete and aimed at diminishing the nature of what happened.

Al-Shabaab claims in a statement to have killed 17 American and 9 Kenyan soldiers. It also claims to have destroyed 7 aircraft and 5 military vehicles in the attack.

The statement issued by US Africa Command mentions 1 US serviceman and 2 defence contractors who were killed, while 2 others were wounded.

It also states that 6 contractor-operated civilian aircraft were damaged during the attack.

Meanwhile, The Associated Press news agency reported that 2 aircraft and 2 US military helicopters, as well as multiple vehicles were destroyed at the airstrip – so the extent of the damage and casualties remains unclear. Some other news outlets claimed that 4 US soldiers died in the attack.

CONCLUSIONS

We should remember that nearly every news report has an agenda.

Media outlets dish out information in a way that suits them the best at the given time, not with the full objectivity and complete truth in mind.

I hope that some of the information verification methods used to illustrate the above example will be useful to you.

If you have any suggestions or want to share some observations, please let me know in the comments section below.

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