I was recently tasked with finding information on a 2011 tank shelling in Abidjan, on the southern Atlantic coast of Côte d'Ivoire. I’m currently a volunteer researcher for the UK-based charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), and my co-ordinator needed to know the exact type of shell that hit Abobo Market on March 17th.
Several mornings of research later, I’d come up with bad news for the project - it was an 81mm mortar shell rather than anything fired by a tank. However, how I’d got there proved to be a useful exercise in investigating war zones - especially ones that were a decade old with digital evidence relatively thin on the ground. I’m going to talk through my process and findings as a kind of blueprint for anyone interested in carrying out these kinds of OSINT investigations into historical conflict.
Stage 1: The Background
It’s always useful to know this before you start looking in depth at a case. This will provide the necessary context to your evidence, especially if you’re not familiar with the country or war in question. I would usually recommend Wikipedia, just to get a sense of the combatants, the scale, and the major events.
In this particular case, the second Ivorian civil war kicked off in March 2011. Months earlier, incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo was voted out in favor of his opponent Alassane Ouattara, but refused to step down. After a long period of fraught negotiations - with the army on Gbagbo’s side, initially - Ouattara’s forces seized most of the country, excluding the economic capital of Abidjan. Ouattara was backed by French and UN forces, the former of whom eventually arrested Gbabgo in April 2011, thus putting an end to the conflict. About 3000 people died and atrocities were committed on both sides.
Important points to pick up here: the army was on Gbagbo’s side and based around Abidjan, especially during March when the shelling happened. There was also a unit loyal to Ouattara known as the Invisible Commando operating in the city and fighting Gbabgo loyalist forces.
Stage 2: Military Capabilities
At this point, I was operating under the assumption that Abobo Market was shelled by a tank as this was the information reported to AOAV. The first thing to do, then, was figure out who had access to tanks and what tanks they were. In this case, it was the army (though at least one source mentioned that the Gendarmerie had tanks too - but I didn’t end up needing to look into this).
Several sites that are useful sources of information on national armies:
- Global Firepower ranks countries on their military strength and gives accurate & updated numbers of military equipment and hardware.
- Wikipedia (check the sources!) often gives a good indication of places to start - plug “country” + military into your search engine of choice, and you should get a sense of what hardware they have. Here’s the page on Côte D’Ivoire.
- Another good source is the SIPRI database on arms transfers, which dates back to 1950. You can select the type of arms and the country you’re interested in, and it will tell you who sold who what. This is particularly useful for countries who don’t manufacture their own arms.
A good thing to note as well is that there are often different variations of a given model of tank. In addition, some armoured personnel carriers (APCs) are mounted with mortars or weapons comparable to those found on a tank. For example, when I found out that the shell was an 81mm (therefore not from either of the two tanks listed above), I did some digging on the other vehicles. Turns out, the shell could feasibly have been fired from a Panhard M3-VPM which has an 81mm mounted mortar. The SIPRI source showed that whilst the Ivorian Army has 16 Panhard M3s, only 10 are accounted for as Panhard M3-VTTs (ie) the type without a mortar.
Stage 3: Search Engines
After this, I spent a long time digging on search engines. This wasn’t very helpful. The Second Ivorian Civil War happened at the same time as the events of the “Arab Spring” across North Africa and the Middle East, as well as the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. In addition, there are often many articles on a situation - and finding ones which mention the details you need is a very needle and haystack situation. I tried looking for local newspapers, but the websites often didn’t go back as far as 2011, so I stuck to Al Jazeera and the BBC.
However, I did find a lot of documents, news articles, and transcripts from the International Criminal Court, which had tried Gbagbo for war crimes. This gave some indication that it was a mortar, but I was still looking for a tank. Without direct evidence or a source it wasn’t as useful as I’d hoped.
Stage 4: Eyewitnesses
The most useful site I came across during this stage of the investigation is called CrowdVoice. It is no longer active, but whilst it was live, it documented videos and media about protests, conflicts and human rights issues across the world - and not just the well-known ones. It had a section on the events of 2011 in Côte D’Ivoire, and now functions as an archive.
At this point, knowing what hardware was held by the army, I was looking to see if I could find evidence of either type of tank being in use around Abidjan in the days leading up to the shelling. I found some pretty horrible videos, evidence of a BTR-80 APC, but no actual tanks. I also tried cross-checking with reports from organisations like Human Rights Watch, which do tend to be quite reliable when it comes to documenting incidents - but in this case, nothing proved fruitful.
An important thing to note here is that people (eyewitnesses and sometimes reporters) are often not credible when it comes to identifying military hardware. Many people will call a military vehicle a tank when it is actually an armoured personnel carrier (APC), infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) or self-propelled gun (SPG). Tanks are usually classified as tracked and turreted vehicles with a large calibre gun. If you can find video and identify the vehicle yourself, that is your best bet of knowing what it was unless great detail is given from a trusted source.
Stage 5: Social Media
Finally, I turned to social media. CrowdVoice had given me some of the hashtags in use around the conflict, and so I looked these up - always best to have them - in this case, they were “Ivory Coast War” and “Côte D’Ivoire War”. Relatively quickly, I found a journalist called Seyi Rhodes, who was on the ground in Abidjan at the time of the shelling and made a documentary about the war in general. I tracked down the documentary and watched it - unfortunately, none of Gbagbo’s weaponry showed up and the market shelling wasn’t mentioned.
After that, it was back to Twitter. I searched exhaustively through Rhodes’ old tweets, looking for anything else I could find. It seemed as though he’d actually joined Twitter for the purposes of this trip to Côte D’Ivoire; it was very easy to set the advanced search to the beginning of his Twitter account’s history and start scrolling. By doing this, I found another British journalist who was also on the ground. Often journalists’ social media are the best source of information and leads - and in this case, John James had tweeted about the shelling and the 81mm shells, citing the UN mission in Côte D’Ivoire (UNOCI). Their website had been taken down, but their Twitter account was still up and had their original tweet on it - therefore confirming my find.
Despite my apparently long-winded process, it didn’t take me that long to find my way to an answer. The journey has also made me a better OSINT researcher as I’ve found sources and useful sites. However, next time - once I’d done background & military capability - I would definitely go straight for journalists on Twitter or the accounts of forces such as the UN peacekeepers.
It is also worth noting that you will see some things that might really upset you. I certainly did. I’m not going to repeat what I saw, but I know it’s going to stay with me. Please be careful when researching warzones, and make sure you look after your mental health. Nicole Beckwith gave a great talk about this at ConInt2020, and I’ve also learned from other researchers things like - don’t watch a video with sound the first time, or make sure you know what you’re going to see before you watch it.
The nature of historical conflict means that, unless the incident in question was caught on camera, it is going to be difficult to investigate. The further back you go, the harder it gets. However this has proven to me that there is far more out there than you might realise at first glance - and it’s usually worth the digging.