Can hackers undermine the world’s most vicious terrorist group?
Anonymous’ war against the so-called Islamic State is gaining momentum as the hacktivists enlist the public’s help in hunting down the terrorists in cyberspace — identifying and hacking nefarious websites and Twitter accounts.
The loosely affiliated international network claims to have eliminated thousands of Islamic State Twitter accounts — roughly 6,000 — since terrorist attacks killed 129 and wounded hundreds more in Paris on November 13.
The group posted three guides on an Internet Relay Chat channel on hacking, uncovering ISIS accounts and locating their websites, as International Business Times reported.
“Instead of sitting idle in the channel or lurking around and doing nothing, you can benefit greatly from the different tools and guides that have been provided to you,” one member said. “Your contribution means a lot, and we encourage you to partake in all of the Op’s activities if you can, the more the merrier.”
Over the weekend, a spokesman for Anonymous — cloaked in black and wearing the group’s signature Guy Fawkes mask — appeared in a video to declare war on the terrorist group, officially launching Operation Paris, or #OpParis.
“These attacks cannot remain unpunished, so the members of Anonymous all over the world will hunt you down,” he said in French. “Yes, you vermin who are killing innocent people. We will hunt you down, as we did since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Therefore, be prepared for massive retaliation from Anonymous.”
The French people, he continued, are stronger than the terrorists and will come out of the atrocity stronger than before.
“We are Anonymous. We are legion. We don’t forgive and we don’t forget. Expect us,” the masked person said.
Afterward, ISIS terrorists reportedly used the encrypted messaging app Telegram to warn each other about Anonymous’ plans and share instructions on how to avoid being hacked; they also called the hackers “idiots.”
“The #Anonymous hackers threatened in new video release that they will carry out a major hack operation on the Islamic state (idiots),” the message reads in part.
In many ways, #OpParis is an extension of the organization’s #OpISIS campaign, which was launched in January after jihadists stormed the Paris offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Emerson Brooking, a consultant specializing in network conflict for the think tank New America , said #OpISIS is likely the most sustained Anonymous operation up until this point.
“There was a core group of volunteers who were just furious at what they saw as the Islamic State invading their space — using the Internet for evil,” Brooking said in an interview with Yahoo News. “Because of that, this core group managed to sustain this effort for many months. They maintained an energy that casual volunteers can latch on to.”
Members of Anonymous explained on their official #OpParis Twitter account that they are targeting the terrorist organization on social media because it is their primary method of recruitment. ISIS uses these platforms to amplify their propaganda.
Terror and fear is all they want. Isis is scared of unity, not bomb strikes. If we all stand together, there'll be nothing left for them.— #OpParis (@opparisofficial) November 18, 2015
Brooking explained that Anonymous also works to destroy specialized ISIS sites where the terrorists archive information and carry on private discussions. They do this through traditional “hacking stuff.”
Anonymous also, he continued, monitors and infiltrates ISIS operations virtually, sometimes releasing information about terrorist collaborators they have identified overseas.
“What they do is not equivalent to the best efforts of a state intelligence agency, but there’s a lot more of them. Sometimes they find out how to leverage that material effectively,” Brooking said.
Of course, Anonymous operates with greater impunity than state governments so they do not have to navigate some of the same hurdles.
“That wouldn’t make sense as a U.S. government function,” Brooking said. “It would bring questions about freedom of speech and formal government vs. the Internet.”
Corey Nachreiner, the chief technology officer at WatchGuard Technologies, has spent most of his career in information security, researching cybercrime and malware. He has watched Anonymous grow over the years.
“Anonymous is not a static group. There are certain Twitter handles that are more official than others,” he said to Yahoo News. “But it really is a crowdsourced activist/hactivist group. I’ve seen situations where I suspect the actors behind one operation on maybe one subject … are totally different than the people that might come together in support of Paris.”
According to Nachreiner, there are many offshoots of Anonymous who hack under that name that the “more official” members do not want anything to do with. The core people have been trying to distance their activities from these tangentially related or entirely unrelated hackers.
“In many cases, they have pointed out things that have been validated as potentially legitimate terrorist recruitment hubs,” he said. “But people have also found … names that were never verified or validated to have anything to do with negativity — whether its terrorism or racism.”
With any cybervigilantism campaign, Nachreiner worries about false positives that could put innocent people at risk and suggests there may be cases where law enforcement knows about particular terrorist sites or social networks but does not want them shut down because they could be a source of intelligence.
“On one hand, I can see why people would want to help bring the terrorists to justice. On the other hand, I don’t think I support any nontransparent investigation into who these terrorists are. And yet they do produce results,” he said.
It appears that the collective has managed to accomplish something the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could not. On Tuesday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler shut down suggestions that his agency would be able to shut down websites run by IS or other terrorist organizations, the Hill reported.
“We cannot underestimate the challenge,” he said during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee meeting. “I’m not sure our authority extends to [shut down the websites], but I do think there are specific things we can do.”