Hacker organizations such as Anonymous and its various offshoots have been fighting against the militant terrorist group out of Syria for at least a decade, following its rise from the destruction of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Hackers fighting ISIS
In an attempt to root out and stop communications with the outside world from ISIS affiliates and leaders, hacktivists – as they are often called – have been launching Twitter campaigns and blocking ISIS-associated Twitter accounts and communications in earnest since the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the following Paris attacks in November of this year.
This sample essay provides basic information on ISIS, hacktivist groups, and the campaigns being undertaken in order to thwart future terrorist and jihadi attacks around the globe.
ISIS: A quick sketch
ISIS is a terrorist militant group with an extreme Muslim religious views from the Middle East. The group currently controls part of Northern Syria and central Iraq, and has carried out and encouraged numerous terrorist attacks in France, the United States and other countries over the past few years since Osama bin Laden was killed. ISIS was originally al Qaeda in Iraq and has “proven to be more brutal and more effective at controlling territory it has seized”.
Raqqa, Syria, is the power base of ISIS and it controls over half of Syria’s oil assets (which may produce revenues of $3 million per day for the militant group). ISIS encourages people who agree with their negative beliefs about Americans and democracy to travel to Syria and Iraq in order to train with ISIS; some officials suggest over 11,000 people have made the trip to fight in Syria and Iraq. According to the Pew Research Center and national governments, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia are the countries who have sent the most jihadis to the area.
Hackers: A quick rundown
Hacktivism is the use of computer and computer networks to promote political agendas such as free speech, human rights, and information ethics. Depending on how hacking is used, then, it can be a force for evil or a force for good. In the case of hacktivist organizations such as Anonymous and Ghost Security Group, the organizations see themselves as on par with or above national and international law, which has resulted in many arrests and disbandments of organizations over the years. As Davis observed, however,
“given the disparate structure of these organizations and the transient nature of their members, it is unlikely that all the members” of a particular hacktivist group will be arrested at once or even at all.
Anonymous, which is often associated with the Guy Fawkes mask worn in the movie V for Vendetta, first attacked the Church of Scientology through a denial-of-service attack on its website, coupled with a fax attack and prank phone calls. LulzSec, another branch of the Anonymous hacktivist group, attacked an Internet pornography site and published 26,000 email addresses and their passwords in an attempt to embarrass users of the site – included were two Malaysian government officials and three members of the U.S. military.
Although LulzSec is rumored to have been disbanded, it may return in the future with different members. LulzSec attacked InfraGard, the Fedral Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Senate, and the Central Intelligence Agency websites to release information it thought should be public knowledge, as well as taking the CIA website down for two hours. LulzSec also promoted information security through a breach of the UK National Health Service in order to inform the site of a security vulnerability and thus improve its functioning and information safeguarding. Hacktivism can also be state-sponsored, noted Davis, as in Titan Rain, which was a hack aimed at U.S. defense contractors’ websites and was allegedly the work of the Chinese military.
Anonymous, LulzSec, and other hacktivist groups
Anonymous is a hacktivist group which has carried out attacks on ISIS, the international security industry, intelligence agencies, and even law enforcement agencies in an effort to keep its identities secret and continue to hack large corporations such as Sony. They have famously targeted the Ku Klux Klan, the Vatican, and the Westboro Baptist Church which is known for hate speech against minorities and liberal politicians.
Anonymous has supported many protest movements, including San Francisco’s BART protests and Occupy factions in the United States and abroad. Interpol arrested more than 25 Anonymous participants from AntiSec and LulzSec; the organization still claims “we are legion” and that it has innumerable participants around the globe. Sabu, or Hector Xavier Monsegur, was part of that takedown, as he turned on the group after his arrest and became an informant.
Norton noted that Anonymous is a “do-ocracy,” an organization without leadership and focused on the actions that it performs only; actions are proposed, and others opt to join in – Anonymous is the non-organization which takes credit for the hacktivism, but no one person seeks recognition – and therein lies its power. Norton called Anonymous a “self-appointed immune system for the Internet” interfering and exposing enemies of freedom across the globe. Anonymous began its anti-ISIS campaign following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, according to Fenwick and Smith.
What hackers are doing to fight ISIS
When the Arab Spring began in 2011, the Egyptian government attempted a complete shutdown of the Internet – people communicated on Google, Twitter, and SayNow and public hacktivists created a “Speak2Tweet” service to allow anyone to leave messages on certain telephone numbers. The messages were placed on Twitter in an effort to help people communicate. In 2009, Anonymous set up Anonymous Iran, and exchange website for people to communicate about the suspected widespread election fraud on that country.
Organizations like RedHack out of Turkey and Anonymous Africa have targeted governments viewed as authoritarian by the people of the country in an effort to warn them against pursuing unfair electoral practices. Anonymous and other hacktivists around the globe have carried out numerous attacks against ISIS; but recently warned that a branch collaborating with the United States government, Ghost Security Group, is not affiliated with it and has been receiving payment from the government for information about the Islamic State.
Hackers declare war on ISIS
Anonymous made a declaration of war against ISIS following the Paris terrorist attacks in November of 2015. Anonymous called the declaration the beginning of its “biggest operation ever” and ISIS militants called the anti-organization “idiots”. Anonymous then claimed to have taken down 5,500 pro-ISIS Twitter accounts – since Twitter does not require identification in order to post, it is a consistent method of communication for groups such as ISIS.
Anonymous and ISIS are similar in their mobilization tactics; both use social media to recruit and influence people into performing actions for their organizations; thus Anonymous is very familiar with the social media strategies of ISIS already. The Atlantic reported that more than 46,000 ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts exist with up to 1,000 followers each. There is also a “24-hour Jihadi Help Desk” to help launch more terror attacks against ISIS’ enemies.
Hacktivist actions following the Paris attacks
For the past several months, hacktivists have been working to block social media accounts associated with ISIS, and hashtags #OpParis and #OpISIS have allowed public access to information about the white hat hacks in an effort to help promote their cause in taking down up to 20,000 Twitter accounts. The group provides a how-to procedure for taking ISIS offline and posts the names of questionable accounts through deployment of a bot which searches keywords on social media; the bot reports the accounts to Twitter, who then takes them down.
Although this method has been cited as “crude” by some, it has been effective in helping shut down ISIS recruiters in the past; GhostSec, a branch of Anonymous which claims to carry out infiltration of ISIS message boards warned against the reporting of all Arabic or Muslim tweets. (Ghost Security Group is associated with the United States government and not with GhostSec).
Twitter is a source of many recruitment tactics for ISIS and has not yet blocked terrorist-associated participants in the same manner as Facebook; the Brookings Institution noted that “at least 46,000 active ISIS supporters” were on Twitter in 2014. Telegram is a Russian messaging app which has been a source of much ISIS communication lately, and GhostSec praised activists for taking down hundreds of channels on it following the Paris attacks.
Anonymous has recently published identifying information on “at least five ISIS-linked recruiters” and claimed they have identified a “high-ranking” recruiter in Europe, as well. Congressional terrorism adviser Michael S. Smith II claims to be receiving “valuable information” from hacked data, and Ghost Security Group claims to have passed the chief officer of a defense contractor “information that helped the US break up a militant cell in Tunisia”.
That information included screenshots of “internal communications about an impending attack” in Tunisia, saving lives in that country. In response to hacktivist attacks, ISIS has reportedly withdrawn one of its main websites onto the dark web in order to keep it secure from these groups; Scott Terban noted that accessing the site will be much more difficult for hackers on the dark web; it requires special software to access so will be harder for recruitment as well.
The effectiveness of hacktivist attacks
In April of 2015, Twitter did shut down 10,000 ISIS-related accounts in one day, and admitted that some reports of these accounts were from hacktivist groups; however, a spokesman for Twitter noted that the third party lists were not entirely reliable because they were often “wildly inaccurate”. Although the United States State Department and the Department of Defense “declined to comment” on the hacktivist efforts, the State Department stated that it was “encouraged” by the Telegram takedown and “are continually working to amplify and empower credible third parties to counter ISIL’s messages”. Ghost Security Group and GhostSec posted an interview on The Cryptosphere website recently, indicating that the “common denominator among us is a strong desire to thwart ISIS”.
Continuing hacker operations
In addition to its fight against ISIS, Anonymous is currently carrying out several long-term campaigns against animal abuse websites; Monsanto food products (GMOs); governmental censorship; child pornography and sexual abuse perpetrators; Peshawar’s December 2014 shooting of school children; ISIS media footage and information; and the Nile dam building project in Egypt. In addition, the anti-organization has just begun Operation Safe Winter for those living on the streets in the winter months and Operation Refugee Outreach; both cyber campaigns on social media aimed at public awareness.
Anonymous will carry on its war against ISIS and other terrorist groups into the near future, and hopefully recruit as many hacktivists as ISIS is recruiting jihadis in the future. Through the concerted actions of national and international governmental organizations such as Ghost Security Group, Interpol, the CIA, and the FBI, the efforts of all hacktivists and nonhacktivist anti-terrorism organizations ISIS will be brought down or at the very least thwarted in its attempts to terrify and subjugate innocent people and governments all over the world.
Davis, Dai. “Hacktivisitm: Good or Evil?” Computer Weekly. TechTarget, 2015. Web. 14 December 2015.
Fenwick, Jack, and Oli Smith. “Anonymous Destroy ISIS Twitter Accounts in Campaign US Officials Take ‘Secret Pleasure’ In.” Express. Northern and Shell Media Publications, 2015. Web. 14 December 2015.
Gilbert, David. “Anonymous is Hacking ISIS, but Warns Collaborating with the US Government is ‘Deeply Stupid’.” International Business Times. IBT Media Inc., 2015. Web. 18 December 2015.
Khandelwal, Swati. “Hey ISIS! Check Out How ‘Idiot’ Anonymous Hackers Can Disrupt your Online Propaganda.” The Hacker News. The Hacker News, 2015. Web. 14 December 2015.
Norton, Quinn. “How Anonymous Picks Targets, Launches Attacks, and Takes Powerful Organizations Down.” Wired. Wired, 2015. Web. 14 December 2015.
Rogers, Katie. “Anonymous Hackers Fight ISIS but Reactions Are Mixed.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 2015. Web. 14 December 2015.
Thompson, Nick, Richard Greene, and Sarah-Grace Mankarious. “ISIS: Everything You Need to Know About the Group.” CNN. Cable News Network, 2015. Web. 14 December 2015.
Waqas. “11 Ongoing Anonymous Operations You Must Know About.” Hackread. HackRead.com, 2015. Web. 18 December 2015.