In November of 2022, a final judgment arrived in the trial of alleged perpetrators of the attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17). Russian nationals Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy, and Donbas separatist Leonid Kharchenko, were convicted in absentia for the murder of MH17’s 283 passengers and 15 crew members. They were ruled to have arranged the transfer of the Buk surface-to-air missile system that reportedly struck the plane.
Oleg Pulatov, the only defendant to seek legal representation during the trial, was conversely acquitted on all charges, which prosecutors will not appeal.
The Malaysian airliner had been purportedly shot down by a missile on July 17th 2014, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew aboard.
Heavily dependent on information supplied by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and the Western government-funded “open source” investigations organization known as Bellingcat, the guilty verdicts appeared to vindicate an established narrative in which Russia and its Donbas allies were solely culpable.
But as this investigation will reveal, much of the news coverage of MH17 was heavily influenced by a shadowy entity called Pilgrims Group, which is closely tied to British intelligence.
Staffed and led by British Special Forces veterans, Pilgrims Group is a private security company offering elite security services to London’s embassies, diplomats, spies, and business interests abroad, particularly in high-risk environments. It also trains foreign militaries and paramilitary groups, and provides protection to reporters and their employers.
It was in the latter context that Pilgrims Group shaped media coverage – and by extension, official investigations – of MH17. The company had maintained a presence in Kiev since the early days of the US-orchestrated Maidan “revolution” in late 2013, shepherding journalists to and from the scenes of major events in Ukraine. In the process, it maintained control over what the reporters under its watch saw and how they understood the situations they encountered.
As such, Pilgrims Group played a pivotal role in the effort by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and British intelligence to convict Russia and the Donbas separatists for MH17’s downing. The operation began while the plane’s wreckage remained smoldering on the ground of rebel-controlled territory, and ultimately prevented the initiation of any genuinely independent investigations.
— Sky News (@SkyNews) July 18, 2014
Before Malaysia Airlines publicly announced it had lost contact with MH17, Ukraine’s then-Minister of Internal Affairs Anton Gerashenko had published its flight number, destination, passenger numbers, the manner in which it crashed, the weapon used, and blamed Russia and Donbas separatists for the catastrophe.
From that point on, the SBU began flooding the information space with materials including intercepted audio of the separatists discussing a downed plane, as well as images its agents allegedly found on social media pointing to where the allegedly Russian-sourced Buk missile had been fired. Bellingcat, which serendipitously launched just days before, immediately seized on the deluge of carefully curated information.
With impressive speed, the US and British government-funded media outfit claimed to have precisely mapped out what happened and how. Bellingcat’s findings were accepted without a shred of critical scrutiny by the Western media, lawmakers, pundits, and the MH17 tribunal, which was launched on August 7th 2014.
In the process, any explanations for MH17’s downing that did not reinforce the official narrative either vanished into the ether, or were maligned as conspiracy theory or Russian “disinformation.” One compelling counter-theory for the aerial disaster was that the plane had been used as a shield by Ukrainian fighter jets to deter ground-to-air attacks by the separatists.
There are clear precedents for such provocative tactics. In 2018, for example, the Israeli air force tricked Syrian air defenses into accidentally shooting down a Russian spy plane by using it as cover for its own fighter jets. A leaked JIT document noted Donbas separatists were convinced that authorities in Kiev were keeping eastern Ukraine’s airspace open for precisely this purpose, having conversely closed Crimea’s at the time.
Furthermore, in a video published on June 18th 2014, separatists expressed concern that Kiev was attempting to provoke an in-air incident. Three days before MH17 went down, a Ukrainian military aircraft ferrying military equipment and soldiers to the frontline was shot down over Lugansk. Multiple witnesses have testified to the presence of Ukrainian jets in the sky near MH17, while contemporary local TV reports show a Ukrainian-operated Buk missile in the vicinity.
Yet, the JIT was simply unwilling to consider evidence diverging from the established Western narrative of MH17. And as the trial proceeded, Pulatov’s defense team, independent journalists and researchers attempting to challenge the long-established narrative of Russian culpability were subjected to vicious attacks from Bellingcat’s army of online trolls.
The SBU-directed propaganda blitzkrieg that immediately followed MH17’s downing ensured that the separatists accused of the attack, and the government accused of sponsoring them, were quickly convicted in the court of international opinion. This may explain why media reaction to the November 2022 verdict was so muted. Despite the enormous, enduring global outcry provoked by the MH17 disaster, the verdict hardly registered with mainstream journalists.
Yet many of the journalists that had covered the MH17 from Ukraine had been kept under the careful watch of an organization intimately involved with the same Western governments with a stake in convicting the separatists for the disaster.
Because Pilgrims Group operates largely in the shadows, references to the company by Western news outlets are extremely rare. However, the firm is well-known to all major media outlets, boasting on its website of “significant experience of helping to facilitate safe and secure news-gathering and film-making.” Pilgrims Group also claims expertise in ensuring that “journalists and production staff can operate safely and securely” in hostile circumstances, such as “underdeveloped countries, failing states and post-disaster environments.”
The British company made headlines for its work in late 2012, after armed militants abducted a six-strong NBC News team led by the network’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, whom the company was guarding. Engel and his team were freed after five days in captivity, when a vehicle in which they were being escorted was stopped at a checkpoint run by violent extremist group Ahrar al-Sham.
This resulted in a shootout, in which two fighters who kidnapped the team were killed by Ahrar al-Sham. Initially, Engel claimed his captors were affiliated with the government of Bashar Assad, while NBC implied Ahrar al-Sham’s rescue was completely serendipitous. Subsequent investigations revealed the abductors were, in fact, affiliated with the CIA-backed Free Syrian Army, and the checkpoints had been deliberately arranged by Pilgrims Group, which praised the terrorist militia’s “brilliant job.”
Decisive interventions by Pilgrims Group elsewhere have received much less attention. On June 3rd 2014, the firm issued a little-noticed press release boasting of its reputation as “the security company of choice” for media organizations operating in Ukraine at every stage of the Maidan “political unrest,” working with “journalist teams throughout the country” during key “disturbances.”
Oddly, despite their coverage of these events presumably being very publicly disseminated across the globe, Pilgrims Group’s clients in Ukraine apparently “preferred not to be named” due to “the sensitive nature of their role.” Nonetheless, the company bragged that its teams were operational in many of the country’s “major population centres,” including Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kiev, Lviv, Odessa, “and throughout Crimea.”
“Pilgrims has been able to respond rapidly to broadcasters’ demands by drawing on its extensive networks to mobilise former special services personnel, who were on duty within 12 hours of the clients’ initial requests (and frequently considerably quicker). In addition, the company continues to maintain the highest level of awareness of the unfolding political situation in the Ukraine by maintaining its local contact network [emphasis added], with regular updates of information on the ground.”
Further detail on Pilgrims Group’s activities in Ukraine appears in a leaked June 2016 Foreign Office proposal to train Syrian rebel fighters in Jordan as part of the plan to overthrow the Syrian government. The company was central to the project, running “simultaneous training programmes around the world,” and therefore maintaining a “large and flexible pool” of staff who could be assigned to the mission. MH17 was cited as an example of the speed with which Pilgrims Group could mobilize its operatives.
“As a global risk management company Pilgrims are routinely required to expand their operational footprint and support tasks at short notice,” the proposal bragged. “Pilgrims supported a large number of media organisations operating in Ukraine, which peaked at 27 active security teams on the ground. When the Malaysian Airlines aircraft was shot down over Ukraine…Pilgrims generated seven additional teams within six hours [emphasis added].”
This proposal was submitted to the Foreign Office by Adam Smith International, a British intelligence cutout with an extensive history of scandal, corruption and collaboration with jihadist groups. As The Grayzone has revealed, the company also funded Bellingcat to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in the 2019-20 financial year. Both organizations have refused to reveal the purpose of this sum.
Pilgrims Group has also offered protection to Western journalists in other conflict zones. The LinkedIn profile of senior company staffer and British Army veteran Chris Bradley lists his work providing “security risk management to two award winning news teams in Ukraine (2014) and Syria (2015), including coverage of MH17,” as one of his biggest “achievements” at the firm.
Given the insidious role played by London and its assorted intelligence cutouts in shaping worldwide media coverage of the Syrian civil war, such professional history raises troubling questions about Pilgrims Group’s involvement in influencing news coverage of MH17.
Following the MH17 disaster, Western journalists flocked to the crash site while Ukraine’s State Emergency Service rushed to collect corpses. The collection work was halted after it came under fire from the Ukrainian army, however, and emergency workers left outright after Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representatives arrived at the crime scene. But reporters under the watchful eye of Pilgrims Group stayed and continued their reporting.
Over subsequent months, as the remaining bodies rotted in the sun, OSCE monitors and pro-Russian rebels frequently left MH17’s wreckage unguarded for extended periods. It was not until November 2014 that the ground was comprehensively cleared. During that time, little would have prevented malicious actors from manipulating, removing or planting incriminating evidence at the site.
In order to operate in Ukraine, Pilgrims Group required the approval of the country’s government, as well as local security and intelligence services. Given the intense fervor with which these same actors sought to cement Kremlin culpability for MH17, Pilgrims Group’s work in managing the protection and travel of Western reporters provided a logical tool to assist this effort, as its operatives were literally able peer over the shoulders of journalists while they worked.
Another extremely curious and thus far undisclosed component of the MH17 controversy is the clandestine role played by London’s information warriors in shaping public perceptions of the event. These operations began almost at the precise moment of the crash.
Leaked files related to the activities of Integrity Initiative, a Foreign Office black propaganda unit staffed by British military and intelligence veterans, contain countless references to battling Kremlin “narratives” around MH17. For example, one of its operatives was listed in the documents as a “continuous commentator” in the studio of LBC, one of Britain’s largest radio stations which reaches millions of listeners weekly, on the night of the incident.
In Foreign Office funding submissions in 2018, Integrity Initiative proposed organizing focus groups with select Russian and Russian-speaking audiences, who would be invited to “rebut Western analyses of key media stories (e.g. MH17, Litvinenko, Skripal, doping)” and explain why they supported “counter narratives” about these issues, which pointed away from Moscow.
The results of this effort would be shared with British intelligence agencies and members of the Initiative’s overseas “clusters” – secret networks of spooks, academics, journalists, pundits and politicians – to assist in battling these “narratives” via news outlets and social media. Notably, all Integrity Initiative’s cluster members are formally trained in the art of online trolling.
Integrity Initiative was one of several propaganda enterprises launched by a shadowy Foreign Office unit known as the Counter Disinformation and Media Development (CDMD). The unit is overseen by senior intelligence officer Andy Pryce, who personally “handles” British journalist Paul Mason and likely many other media personalities. Its stated remit is to “weaken the Russian state’s influence” in countries comprising the former Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact and Yugoslavia.
The flagship component of this multi-million pound effort is Open Information Partnership (OIP). Though OIP has posed as a grassroots endeavor to battle Kremlin “disinformation,” leaked files related to the project make abundantly clear it is, in fact, a British-sponsored “troll factory.” Through a covertly funded nexus of ‘independent’ NGOs, fact-checkers, news outlets and citizen journalists across Central and Eastern Europe, the initiative deluges the media environment with a ceaseless stream of anti-Russian propaganda.
Among OIP’s founding “partners” was Bellingcat. For the first three years of its existence, Bellingcat trained participating organizations “in open source research and social media investigation,” while “developing a cadre of organizations with a digital forensic skillset.” In the process, it raked in vast sums from the Foreign Office. Its MH17 investigation was explicitly cited as a reference point for this activity in the Partnership’s founding documents.
OIP’s network was also originally intended to include the Berlin-based “non-profit independent newsroom” Correctiv, which published multiple investigations blaming Russia for MH17. While some of this work won awards, a secret Foreign Office-funded appraisal of the outfit acknowledged its reporting on the crash “[lacked] in-depth background research and due diligence.” However, the outlet’s “excellent” public reputation made it “perhaps the most impressive” of all prospective OIP members.
To advance its anti-Russian machinations, CDMD commissioned extensive target audience analyses of the populations of Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Ukraine and the West Balkans throughout 2017. British intelligence indicated that it sought insights into citizens of these countries’ “current perception and attitude towards Russia,” especially with respect to the Kremlin’s “handling” of events such as Brexit, the Syrian crisis, and MH17.
At the same time, British cutouts like the Integrity Initiative and Pilgrims’ Group helped manage the Western public’s view of MH17 as part of a wider agenda to cultivate popular resentment of Russia.
These same entities continue to shape Western perceptions of events in Ukraine to this day. A May 2022 “capability statement” outlining Pilgrims Group’s Eastern European footprint refers to the Russian invasion “[triggering] a rapid scaling up” of its operations in Kiev.
Pilgrims Group has provided “support networks, including logistics and equipment, to media crews covering the conflict,” and embedded “dozens” of “security consultants” in the ranks of “almost all major international news organisations” active in the country.” Strikingly, the statement adds that all Pilgrims Group security teams in Kiev boast Ukrainian “special police or MoD [Ministry of Defence] backgrounds.”
Once again, Pilgrims Group has been effectively placed in charge of where journalists can travel, what they see, and who they interview in a conflict. Yet even as it helps shape public perceptions of a Western proxy war, the company has managed to remain conveniently in the shadows.