"It’s hard when you see someone suffering in 4K and hear their cries for help"
Aram Shabanian talks about OSINT, Ukraine & mitigating trauma with cats
Aram Shabanian is a cool guy and an OSINT expert who recently worked on the New Lines-Wallenberg report. In the course of their research, Aram and his colleagues focused on possible genocide committed by Russians in Ukraine. Here’s a good NYT article on the report and its implications.
I’ve wanted to interview Aram for a while — both because I find him to be a smart, sensitive person (sensitivity actually being somewhat of a rarity in our field), and because like me, his cat helps him in his work. Think I’m joking? Check out the interview below.
I want to start this off on a dramatic note. There is a lot of distressing footage coming out of Ukraine. Most of my current research is on the financial side of things. But you’re looking more at operations on the ground. Are you mitigating secondary trauma? It’s not talked about much in our field, but I think it’s a concern.
There are parts of it that are rough to deal with. There are some elements that keep you up at night.
One of the ways I deal with it is taking breaks. I disengage every hour, and engage with something that’s less traumatic. As a rule of thumb, when my cat bothers me for attention, that’s when I disengage and hang out with him for a bit. This is his way of checking me.
If that doesn’t work, I have another solution. Because I’m working on Ukraine, I will find a book about Ukrainian history that doesn’t go up to the present day, but does go up to very recent history. I can trick my brain into thinking that this is all still important for my work, but I’m not traumatizing myself, I am insulating.
I also totally rely on my cat to help me “change the channel” when it comes to how my brain works. I also am trying to work on quitting my old bad habit of turning to my phone the minute I wake up. It’s not good for you, but of course I went back to it when the invasion first started.
You have to allow yourself to wake up before you engage with the Ukraine material. You can’t jump right into it; it will screw you up really badly. And then you end up not reacting to things properly either — and who needs that. You can’t help anyone if you’re messed up.
I encouraged my super followers on Twitter to ask questions that I can relay to you. One of them, Rashad, wanted you to talk about your favorite image-related OSINT tools right now, during this conflict. What are they?
I don’t do much image metadata analysis — which is work on the technical side of things — but when I do, I use the InVID browser plugin, which I’ve had a lot of good luck with. It has image analysis tools, video analysis tools, and it can help with research on Twitter. It’s very handy.
I typically analyze satellite imagery. I use Sentinel Hub, which is the European Space Agency’s satellite imagery browser. ESA has both Sentinel Hub and Sentinel Playground, both available online, both free.
You can use these tools to detect changes happening in cities. For example, you can see that a building has been destroyed, because the elevation changes on the radar imaging. You can also pick up thermal anomalies and fires. You can see the fires burning in cities like Mariupol on the days that the fighting is really intense. You can track individual battles on an almost daily basis.
One of my Substack subscribers wanted us to talk about feelings of helplessness. Do you ever feel helpless, as you’re watching these events take place?
I used to have those feelings a lot. Especially with Syria. I remember the fall of 2015, when ISIS was on the rise, and the Russian military was using that to respond heavily [in the region], and things looked pretty bleak. I remember reaching out to people from different organizations and areas in Syria, asking what can be done — and what they wanted was money for supplies and they needed people to tell their story, to get their governments to act, to help them.
So what I think is this — we’re not helpless. As modern warfare has changed, as hybrid warfare now targets populations differently, the civilian population can fight back now. So if I’m taking part in this report on genocide in Ukraine, that was recently published, I’m taking part in the fight against Russian disinformation.
We’re all capable of spreading the word. Of course it’s hard when you see someone suffering in 4K and hear their cries for help — but they’re on the other side of the world, and you can’t help. The human brain was not prepared for that. This is new to humanity. If you think your brain can adequately process that and have the right reaction, you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s not fair to yourself to do that.
I am extremely inspired by what you’re saying. I’m sure others will be too. So what is your OSINT origin story? How can people follow in your footsteps?
I never really knew that I was going to go into this field, when I first started. I planned on being a high school history teacher, or a community college history professor, something along those lines. Those are awesome careers, and I still want to teach someday.
But what I realized is that I had a pretty unique set of skills that I developed simply due to growing up as a shit-poster, due to growing up online. I started following as many open source accounts as I could online.
I also picked out which OSINT skills were a good fit to develop for myself. You don’t have to be good at everything in order to do OSINT. For example, I’m decent at geolocation. But flight tracking? I am really good at that — I have a background in aeronautics. I’ve studied airplanes my entire life.
So what I’m trying to say is this — find what fits you, what overlaps with existing knowledge and knowledge you’d like to develop. You don’t have to know everything.
One of my favorite things about OSINT is that it’s kind of like creating a mosaic. Different people contribute differently to a particular pool of knowledge. As corny as that sounds.
No, that’s accurate. That’s what makes it different from traditional intelligence gathering. You can have very good minds, focused on very specific things, but in traditional intelligence, if what you’re looking for falls outside of your circle of knowledge, it can fall through the cracks.
In this particular field, we’re not supposed to make predictions, but I will ask you anyway: What do you think will happen in the next few months with regard to Ukraine? Or — what are your hopes for what will happen?
The war will continue to slog on for as long as Putin is in charge. And as the Russian military becomes more desperate — because I think the Ukrainian military will be able to hold its own — they will become even more vicious.
This may make me sound unprofessional, but Ukraine is my native country. I’m allowed to be biased. So I’m just going to say it: I hope Putin has a pre-arranged heart attack.
As an American who grew up in the early 2000s, I am obviously uncomfortable with the idea of outside regime change. But for the love of God, somebody in Russia needs to do the right thing.