How credible is the Anonymous threat to Israel?

Hacker group Anonymous is once again threatening Israel with a cyber attack later this month. But is this the real Anonymous group or posers? How serious is the threat? 

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
Palestinian protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks rest during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest near Israel's Ofer Prison, near the West Bank city of Ramallah back on March 13. The hacker group Anonymous recently issued a warning to the Israeli government, threatening a "cyber holocaust" over their perceived mistreatment of Palestinians.

A warning has been issued for the state of Israel, allegedly from the hacking collective "Anonymous," in a new video in which they threaten to "erase the country from cyberspace."

A credible threat or another case of digital smoke blowing? 

Citing what the hackers called "continuous aggression, bombing, killing, and kidnapping of the Palestinian people," the group vowed to unleash cyber "squadrons" that will launch what the video referred to as a "cyber holocaust" that the speaker announces will occur on April 7. The attack is scheduled to occur a little more than a week before Israel's Holocaust remembrance day, known as Yom HaShoah, which takes place on April 16. 

The volume of cyber attacks by hackers is on the rise in Israel – and surged during Operation Protective Edge (the 1.5 month-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict) last summer, when Isaac Ben-Israel of Tel Aviv University says cyber attacks grew by 900 percent. These attacks were attributed to anti-Israeli hackers among its Arab neighbors, operating under a hacking umbrella Israeli authorities referred to as Op-Israel – hackers who have been influenced by various Islamist organizations, according to the Times of Israel.

“Instead of the usual 100,000 attacks we get each day, we were now getting a million such attacks from all over the Arab and Muslim world,” he told the Israeli news website.  

It should be noted that Anonymous hackers receive marching orders from no single authority. Fellow "Anons" have to strike a balance between maintaining their web identities and cyber footprints anonymous to authorities online, all while communicating operational messages to other hackers, according to Wired. In this case, the likely Arab hackers, according to Daniel Cohen, a research associate at the Israel Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) Cyber Warfare program, have been identified by Israeli cyber defense teams as hacking on behalf of Islamist interests.

The nature of "Anonymous" as a brand means that those hackers using the name vary widely in terms of their goals, targets, and location. David Kushner of the New Yorker wrote in his profile of the Anonymous, "There was no membership fee or initiation. Anyone who wanted to be a part of Anonymous—an Anon—could simply claim allegiance." 

And the relative unity the group enjoyed in the past may be fracturing. As The Christian Science Monitor reported:

There's now a growing divide between various partisans that claim the Anonymous moniker: The North American contingent is increasingly isolated by the rest of the community as Anonymous gains more traction in EuropeAsia, and Latin America.

This fissure, or lack of control over the movement, has been a few years in the making, but was most apparent after the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. In the wake of the January terrorist attack, European members of Anonymous pushed for online revenge attacks on Islamic militant website under the hashtag #OpCharlieHebdo....

Established North American Anonymous accounts ignored, criticized, or mocked #OpCharlieHebdo and #OpISIS. Other American mouthpieces dismissed it as a “false flag,” meaning it was orchestrated by the CIA or some other government to distract from more important issues, damage Anonymous’ reputation or to instigate unrest for political purposes. ...

This loss of influence over the collective is reflective of how global politics are playing out within the darker corners of the Internet where Anonymous and likeminded hackers spend time. The Edward Snowden leaks that revealed pervasive National Security Agency monitoring of the Internet has led to a deep distrust of American Anonymous members.

"The ‘anti-American’ sentiments have become more and more a part of our conversations,” said Raymond Johansen, a global privacy activist on the FreeAnons Advisory board dedicated to freeing imprisoned Anonymous hacktivists.

Anonymous was thought to be compromised in 2011 when the American government arrested Hector Xavier Monsegur, known as Sabu, and he began to informing on other Anonymous hackers, according to Wired. Sabu's arrest disrupted a successful string of hacks between 2008 and 2012, according to Business Insider. These attacks included taking down the Westboro Baptist Church's website. During this time period, Anonymous also launched Operation DarkNet, the group's anti-child pornography campaign. 

"It's not like you throw them in jail and they disappear," Mark Rasch a former federal cybercrimes prosecutor, told Wired. "It's sort of like squeezing Jell-O. It just moves somewhere else." 

So, does the "Anonymous" faction threatening Israel pose a credible risk?

“For the most part, this is posturing. This is actually the fourth year that Anonymous has carried out this Op Israel attack and called on their supporters to erase Israel from the internet,” Benjamin T. Decker, an intelligence analyst at the Tel Aviv-based consultancy the Levantine Group, told Newsweek. “As the years have progressed we have seen that, despite their increasing sophistication in hacking techniques, we have seen less damage against Israeli cyber infrastructures, largely due to Israel’s pioneering of most cyber warfare tactics, both offensive and defensive.”

One such attack occurred in 2013, launched by Op_Israel in which supposed Arab hackers, under the Anonymous rubric, claimed to cause some $3 billion in damage, Haaretz reported. The hack targeted more than 100,000 websites, 40,000 Facebook pages, 5,000 Twitter accounts and 30,000 Israeli bank accounts, according to the report.

The government claimed no major disruptions occurred, but the hack resulted in some websites being blocked and a handful of officials' contact information and other personal data posted online, according to Haaretz.

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