Much of my research and fascination is driven by the rise of the “citizen journalist”, “Homo Digitalis” or the “super-empowered individual”. These are individuals or groups who have maximised their impact in the domains of warfare, journalism, intelligence, and statecraft, by leveraging the democratisation of technology and its disruptive effects.
While, most of these technologies and tactics used to be only available to states. Today, however, it is possible for protestors in Hong Kong to communicate and organise through apps like Tinder. Or, more insidious, to recruit and direct sleeper cells to commit terrorist attacks by leveraging Facebook groups or forums such as 8Chan.
One of the most affected battlegrounds by these super-empowered individuals in Syria. For example, groups like Islamic State (IS) have utilised platforms such as Telegram, YouTube, and Twitter to recruit, amplify and communicate. They have also weaponised commercial Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAV) with homemade explosives to devastating effect. A domain that in the past was only accessible to states with an air force.
Malhama Tactical sensationally labelled the ‘Blackwater of Jihad’. A private military contractor (PMC) that provides training, weapons and consulting services to extremist groups in Syria. The unit has introduced novel tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP), which in the past were only available to special operations units (SOF) of state actors. The group also requested donations in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
One extremist sniper group even designed a cryptocurrency based crowdfunding platform on the Dark Web for funding! With the so-called SadaqaCoins, anybody sympathetic to the group can donate towards off-road vehicles, optics, suppressors and rifles.
However, there are also plenty of super-empowered individuals active on the right side of the law. Groups like Bellingcat who with the use of open-source intelligence (OSINT) found the real culprits behind the downing of MH17. A feat which the most experienced intelligence analyst or investigative journalist would be proud of!
So, to shine more light on these individuals, I interviewed one of the most prolific small arms OSINT analysts around and the man behind the moniker @CalibreObscura. He has analysed and published illuminating articles on the use of suppressors by extremist groups and the weapons of Albanian sniper group Xhemati Alban.
Can you tell me about yourself?
Calibre Obscura: Broadly speaking, I work in the I.T. industry and have done so for a little while. I started small arms research and analysis because there was a lack of information in the OSINT realm that I wanted to see. That’s why I started writing about suppressor use by insurgent groups, but I didn’t know what that would turn into. However, I had made contacts online that encouraged me to start something. So, from then on, it’s just grown and I’ve tried to maintain that while working my day job.
Do you have any formal military training?
Calibre Obscura:No not formal, but I wouldn’t say I don’t have any contact with anyone in that field.
What is your goal, to do this full-time?
Calibre Obscura:I don’t know quite what my goals are at this point in my life. I would like to take this as far as I can and see if I can make a success out of it. But it’s not the only possibility I have in my life; if that makes sense? So I’m not 100% sure, but I’d definitely like to push it further.
How do you measure success?
Calibre Obscura:Well, there are different metrics I would say. First, it’s in terms of your own satisfaction with the work, how it measures up to others in the field and how good you think it is, basically. If you talk about pure success in this capitalist sense, what people would define as money. I don’t define it as money, but if you produce the best content you can, then other things will follow.
How long have you been doing this work?
Calibre Obscura:I’ve had my Twitter account since early 2017 and been interested in the subject for a long time but started actively writing since mid-spring 2018.
You have touched on it before, but what sparked your interest in this field?
Calibre Obscura:I didn’t see the detailed information that I wanted out there. There are many people on Twitter and on the Russian-speaking internet who do similar stuff. It’s very good, and it’s very interesting. But there was no one prepared to go into the level of detail that I wanted to see. So, I started on it for myself to get a sense. However, I realised there was in terms of suppressor use by extremist groups nothing on the Internet. I thought, hey, well, there’s nothing about this so it makes sense to create content around it.
What is the most interest development you wanted to share?
Calibre Obscura:The realisation that non-state actors and state actors are becoming more and more alike. But that does not mean that the capabilities are the same and there’re advantages and disadvantages to such. I have written extensively about the decentralisation of information for the Internet and platforms like Twitter.
It is the age of the 24/7 cycle of free information sharing, training, and cheap knockoff weapons. The traditional views people held of an insurgent actor about the way they look or operate has radically changed in the last 10 years.
Why do you use an alias?
Calibre Obscura:I feel that it could cause problems with my future career or even my current job. I also prefer to keep a separation between the brand and the person, because my entire life doesn’t revolve around small arms, believe it or not.
What misconceptions do you deal with if any?
Calibre Obscura:First, people misconstrue the groups I research with support for said groups. It makes little sense that if you research groups like Al-Shabab, IRA or YPG you somehow share their views. Opposing a dictator doesn’t mean I support the groups that oppose the Dictator. If they can’t see that, then I block and move on.
Second, people believe that these groups always have bad training, equipment and tactics. While I’m not a tactical expert, there is something to say for the survival capabilities of these individuals, fighting against forces much larger than them. So thinking you somehow could do better than them, based on a picture on the internet, can be silly.
Third, from a pure small arms identification perspective, if a country manufactures a certain weapon it automatically proves the involvement of said country. When you take the time to think deeper, it makes no sense.
Who inspires you in this field?
Calibre Obscura:That’s a hard question, and it’s a very wide range. But I think the original person is Oryx. He’s now writing a book about North Korean weaponry. He was also one of the original people writing about Syria. From an OSINT perspective, I have to mention Bellingcat or Conflict Armament Research (CAR), for the on the ground perspective. Another one is Jake Hanrahan, he has been a big inspiration on what is important in this profession.
What are your plans for the future?
Calibre Obscura:In the short term, I’m looking to write a piece on the arms of ISIS-affiliated groups in the Philippines such as Abu Sayyaf Group and Ansar Khalifa Philippines. It is a bit of a departure from the Middle East and such a different insurgency. The weapons, scale and culture are so different. I’m also looking to create a piece on the long-range precision rifles of the Islamic State. You can see some of that research on my Twitter.
In the long term, I’m working on a newsletter that will start free but transition with some paid elements. It will sit between the short information in tweets and the super long articles and will cover weapons identification guides and pieces from trusted friends and colleagues. The focus will not just be on small arms but will also involve non-state actors and other topics.
Is there something we haven’t covered you would like to add?
Calibre Obscura:To people that would want to get involved in this I would say; create a niche, be very online and be very aware of who you’re talking to. Also, know the laws of the land! In the UK, for example, it’s illegal to watch and collect extremist content without proper legal justification.