Their Photos Were Posted Online. Then They Were Bombed

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The shadowy Russian Wagner paramilitary group has been responsible for atrocities around the world. After first surfacing during Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Wagner mercenaries have been spotted across Central Africa, Syria, and Libya. Since March, according to British intelligence, Wagner forces have been operating in Ukraine, directly alongside Russia’s official military forces.

One part of the Wagner group was attacked in the city of Popasna, Ukraine, earlier this month. On August 8, a pro-Russian journalist in the area shared

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photos on the Telegram messaging app that allegedly showed the local Wagner headquarters. In doing so, they exposed the location of the group. One photo, which has since been deleted, included a sign revealing the base’s address. Ukrainian forces put the data to work.

A few days after the photos were posted online, Ukraine’s military turned the base to rubble, claiming they hit it using American-made rocket systems. A Ukrainian government official said that it “seems” the Wagner-operated location was found using the photos shared on Telegram. The strike appears to be one of the latest incidents in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine where open source intelligence—knowledge gained from publicly available information—has been used to target military attacks or inform tactical operations.

Analysts and online sleuths, such as journalists at the investigative news outlet Bellingcat, have developed and professionalized open source investigation techniques for years. Open source intelligence, also known as OSINT, involves the use of public data—such as social media posts, flight tracking data, and satellite images, among other sources—to let anyone investigate events worldwide, from potential war crimes to human rights violations

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Piecing together small details from multiple sources of information can allow investigators to understand a clearer picture of events on the ground. For instance, comparing features in a photograph, such as a row of trees, and matching them to satellite images can reveal a real-world location. OSINT investigations have previously uncovered Russia’s involvement in the downing of flight MH17; tracked down soldiers in Cameroon who allegedly killed children; and tackled human rights violations around the world.

Many of these investigations often take place online, far from events and often months or years after the events that have taken place. Throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, OSINT has played a big role and changed many of the rules of conventional war. Satellite images have shown Russian troop buildups around Ukraine’s borders, identified Russian army commanders, and tracked those alleged to have killed Ukrainian prisoners of war.

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