By Christiaan Triebert
Warning: this article contains graphic material. Update: Incident Four and Five have been geolocated.
- The International Criminal Court issued its first ever arrest warrant solely based on social media evidence;
- This warrant is a significant development and aligns the Court with the realities of today’s conflict zones;
- All seven videos on which Libyan commander Werfalli is charged with murder as a war crime can be found online;
- With the help of the verification platform Check, Bellingcat is crowdsourcing the geolocation of the locations shown in these videos. Two out of seven videos have been geolocated so far.
- Open source information is a potential goldmine of evidence, though there are potential challenges with using this information in a legal setting, which will be discussed in relation to the Werfalli case.
On August 15, 2017, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued its first ever arrest warrant solely based on evidence collected on social media.
The arrest warrant accuses Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf Al-Werfalli, an alleged commander of the Al-Saiqa Brigade in Libya, of mass executions in or near Benghazi.
The use of social media evidence is a significant development, as it aligns the ICC with the realities of many of today’s conflict zones. It also allows anyone with an Internet connection to access the evidence themselves, as it is all open source information – the kind of information we always base our investigations on at Bellingcat. For that reason, this article examines the social media evidence used in the case in further depth.
Firstly, a contextual background will be given to Werfalli and where the alleged incidents took place related to so-called “Operation Dignity” in and around the Libyan city of Benghazi.
Secondly, the seven incidents based on seven separate videos will be examined in further detail. We have tried to extract as much information as possible out of the videos, and asking our readers to help geolocate the execution site. (Update: So far, already two videos have been geolocated.)
Thirdly, the social media evidence of this specific arrest warrant will be discussed in the light of the promise and peril of open source evidence. There is no doubt that open source information is a huge potential source for legal evidence, but what are the methodological challenges in assessing and eventually using these materials?
Contextual Background: Operation Dignity
Since a bloody uprising started against the government of then-President Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has been in a state of unabated violence and conflict. After the relatively quick fall of Qaddafi, the country has been divided into rival political and armed groups. Opposing government and parliaments roughly divide Libya in an eastern and western side.
Libya is roughly divided into an eastern and western section, as this LiveUAmap of approximate territorial control as of August 31, 2017, shows. The LNA-controlled areas are in red, the Libyan Dawn-controlled areas in blue, and the pink area represents the territory held by Tuareg militias. The black strip at Benghazi are jihadist groups. This is an oversimplified map of territorial control, as it does not show Amazigh (Tuareg) or Toubou controlled areas.
The eastern part of Libya, and a small area west of Tripoli, are controlled by a coalition of armed groups named the Libyan National Army (LNA). This force of former army units, ex-revolutionary groups and tribal coalitions is under the command of General Khalifa Haftar, a dual citizen of Libya and the United States (US). The eastern-based parliament is the internationally-recognised authorities of Libya and known as the House of Representatives, and has received outspoken support from a number of Western countries, including the US, the United Kingdom, and France.
The Government of National Accord (GNA) is seated in the western part of Libya. As a rival of the eastern-based House of Representatives, the GNA has the armed support of several groups, most notably the Libya Dawn group – a coalition of pro-Islamist militias which attacked Tripoli International Airport in the summer of 2014 and has controlled many of Libya’s coastal cities since.
Parts of Benghazi, Libya’s second-most populous city on the eastern Mediterranean coast, have been under control of a coalition of Islamist groups since the 2011 revolution. This coalition of Islamist groups became known as the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC), which includes groups like Ansar Al-Sharia, the February 17 Revolutionary Martyrs’ Brigade, the Rafallah Al-Sahati militia, and the eastern Libya Shield Brigade.
In May 2014, General Haftar launched “Operation Dignity” against the BRSC in and around Benghazi. The operation continued until at least March 18, 2017. One of the groups taking part in the anti-BRSC offensive were the Libyan Special Forces, colloquially known as the Al-Saiqa Brigade.
The Saiqa Brigade was originally part of Qaddafi’s army, but defected in an early stage of the 2011 uprising. Being active especially in western Benghazi in recent years, the group reportedly consists of around 5,000 soldiers. Werfalli, the subject of the ICC arrest warrant, is said to be a Saiqa Brigade commander since at least 2015.
During the periodic fighting in and around Benghazi, Werfalli is said to have been directly responsible for the execution of 33 persons who were either civilians or persons hors de combat. “There is no information in the evidence to show that they have been afforded a trial by a legitimate court, whether military or otherwise”, the arrest warrant states. There was thus an alleged denial of fair trial for the killed individuals – making them unlawful.
Werfalli announced his resignation on May 15 in a video published on YouTube, though the reason why is unclear. There has been chatter that it may have to do with an attack on a police station in Benghazi by the Saiqa Brigade that left one officer dead.
On May 15, 2017, Werfalli announced his resignation. The reason as to why the Saiqa Brigae commander resigned unclear.
Following the ICC arrest warrant, the LNA arrested Werfalli, stating he was under investigation by a military prosecutor. The LNA said that it is ready “to cooperate with [the ICC] in informing you of the result and course of the judicial case”. The LNA statement did not mention whether it would hand over Werfalli to the ICC.
However, a spokesperson for the Saiqa Brigades dismissed the ICC arrest warrant, saying that the ICC should rather arrest the opponents of the armed group, Al Jazeera reported.
To be contiuned
Christiaan Triebert is an all-source conflict analyst with an interest in conflict and development. He has conducted fieldwork in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine, among other countries. King’s College London and University of Groningen graduate.