Bellingcat researcher Timmi Allen zooms in on Google Earth to a Berlin police station where he once worked for East Germany's feared secret police -- the Stasi.
"Under this [station] there is a deep bunker that was supposed to be able to withstand a nuclear bomb," he says.
Allen's manner is calm and unemotional. But this conversation at his modest Berlin home is a big deal.
This is the first time he has given a media interview revealing details of his past working for the Stasi, which was notorious for its brutality and repressive methods.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Allen describes pursuing “enemies of the state” from a drab office in the East German capital using index cards and a typewriter.
It’s a stark contrast to his role at the independent investigative organization Bellingcat, in which he used cutting-edge 3D computer graphics to help expose a Russian role in shooting down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, killing 298 people.
“I would not like to return [to the time in the Stasi]. I was glad when it was finished,” says Allen, who studied criminology at East Berlin’s Humboldt University in Potsdam after joining the state security service.
“These are all things which are useful today -- but that is not what brought me to Bellingcat,” he says.
“Rather, it was my personal circumstances: My daughter is badly disabled and her twin sister died," the 57-year-old continued. "And when I heard about MH17 it affected me greatly because so many children were killed. This is how I came into contact with [Bellingcat founder] Eliot [Higgins]."
The Stasi, or State Security Ministry, was used for spying on East German citizens, using a vast network of informers to document, root out, and extinguish dissent against the communist system.
Alongside its covert operations, it was also a paramilitary organization complete with its own uniforms that worked openly in public.
That is how Allen’s Stasi career began, with a seven-year stint as a guard. But in 1987 he was promoted to be an operative.
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According to the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic (BStU), there were some 12,000-13,000 officers of this rank responsible for running networks of secret informers and lower-ranking Stasi employees.
“My job was to evaluate reports, to sift through them for information. In particular information about people who wanted to work against the state,” says Allen.
"But this is exactly what led me to have doubts [about communist doctrine], right at the beginning of 1987.”
Allen’s job consisted of numerous strands. One of them was monitoring East German citizens who had requested permission to emigrate to the West.
Allen would assemble information “about the people they were associated with, friends and others," he says. "The aim was to see if anything else would come to light.”
Emigration from East Germany was, in theory, perfectly legal. In practice, says Allen, those who submitted such requests were “seen as enemies of the state.”
Allen cites this discrepancy between theory and practice as a cause of his growing disillusionment. Another reason was reports from subordinates based in local factories that differed strongly from the glowing picture presented in official propaganda.
“In the enterprises which we were responsible for, the general mood at this time was one of dissatisfaction,” he says.
These pressures came to a head during preparations for local elections in May 1989. Allen and his colleagues attended a meeting of their branch of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), the official name of East Germany’s communist party.
East German elections were carefully stage managed, with official figures showing almost 100 percent turnout and a similar figure of votes for the SED.
“It was our job to register nonvoters. We had a figure that around 20 percent [of eligible voters were not taking part]. The news reports said it was [only] around 1 percent,” says Allen. “This issue was raised at the meeting. My colleagues and I were very angry. This was a first sign of the downfall [of the communist regime].”
In November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and East Germany collapsed, Allen says “nobody in our [Stasi] office was unhappy.”
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Many would doubt this portrayal of the Stasi as being such unwilling servants of the state. But an SED commission began investigating growing criticism of the party from within Stasi ranks in February 1989.
A BStU history of the Stasi in 1989 notes “many Stasi members were struck by a sense of the pointlessness of their work.”
Nevertheless, many continued following orders even after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“We received the order to destroy all our documents," says Allen. "We had to tear them all apart. We worked also with shredders, but they overheated and broke down.”
Some of the destruction was stopped by a wave of occupations of Stasi offices by angry citizens. But the BStU says 40-55 million pages were torn or shredded, and it is still painstakingly trying to reassemble them at offices in Berlin and Frankfurt on Oder.
Some of Allen’s files will never be recovered.
“For me it was important to protect the sources that I had worked with. So I burnt some files that were related to these sources.”
When the Stasi was shut down, Allen landed a job at a computer company, gaining some of the IT skills that would lead to his current career as a 3D graphics designer.
He works for Bellingcat in his spare time.
Allen’s Stasi past first became public knowledge several months after Bellingcat’s first report documenting Russia’s role in the shooting down of MH17.
In June 2015, Spiegel Online reported that Allen had been active in the Treptow district of East Berlin, and cited Bellingcat chief Higgins as saying: “In recent months I have come to know him as a volunteer who has given up his free time to uncover the truth about the murder of 298 passengers onboard flight MH17.”
Spiegel cited Bellingcat sources as saying Allen was “not proud” of his Stasi past and had started “a new life.”
In a 2018 documentary, Bellingcat -- Truth In A Post-Truth World, Allen said the British-based investigative journalism collective was making wrongdoing known to the public while the Stasi was about keeping secrets.
He did not discuss his Stasi work beyond saying he assessed information and wrote analyses.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Allen said Higgins knew about his Stasi past before it was made public by the media.
“We spoke about it. It was, at that time, 25-26 years ago. It shouldn’t interest anyone anymore.”