Modern field guide to security and privacy

Will Anonymous' plot against Islamic State make any difference?

Or are digital vigilantes just hindering government efforts to pursue and disrupt the militant group?

Jason Redmond/Reuters
Anonymous activists wearing Guy Fawkes masks rallied in Seattle in November.

The hacker collective Anonymous on Sunday released a list of more than 1,000 Twitter accounts that it claims Islamic State supporters use to spread propaganda. That was just the first salvo of an intensified campaign against the terror group following last Friday's Paris attacks.

The question, however, is whether Anonymous' effort and that of a growing number of like-minded digital vigilantes in recent months will have any impact on the militants' digital networks, or are they only hindering government efforts to disrupt the jihadi group.

In a YouTube video Monday, an individual wearing the collective's trademark Guy Fawkes mask promised that Anonymous activists from around the world would hunt down the Islamic State. "We are going to launch the biggest ever operation against you," the masked individual warned. "Expect very many cyberattacks." (A slightly different English language version of the video is available here.)

Following the deadly attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, Anonymous launched a campaign dubbed #OpISIS to expose and destroy websites, social media accounts, and e-mail addresses of those it considered as affiliated with the terror group. Since then, it has claimed credit for shutting down several websites, and exposing e-mails, private networks, Internet addresses, and more than 9,000 Twitter accounts allegedly being used by Islamic State (ISIS) activists.

It's unclear how exactly Anonymous plans on escalating that effort with it new #OpParis campaign launched over the weekend. According to Anonymous, it has already taken down more than 3,800 pro-ISIS Twitter accounts following the Paris attacks. Members of the collective are now apparently working on setting up teams for intelligence gathering, intelligence analysis and dissemination as part of a broader, more organized effort to hit ISIS capabilities online.

Supporters and sympathizers of ISIS have used social media channels and the Internet extensively to communicate, to recruit, and to coordinate supporters across continents. By going after the online accounts used by members and supporters of the group, Anonymous hopes to degrade and diminish the ability for ISIS to communicate and proselytize using the Internet.

But its penchant for doling out vigilante style justice replete with hyperbolic messages of vengeance and retribution may not be quite what’s needed now, say analysts. For one thing, regardless of how successful Anonymous might prove in exposing Twitter accounts and shutting down websites, it's simple for ISIS supporters to reestablish new ones.

In fact, many ISIS supporters are likely using the same tactics that members of Anonymous and other hacktivist groups use to stay ahead of those following them, says Joe Gallop head of the hacktivism intelligence practice at iSight Partners. The group behind the Paris attacks, for instance, may have used encrypted chat technology to communicate with each other, a tactic that hacktivists have long used to stay under the law enforcement radar, Mr. Gallop said.

"Terrorist organizations are just taking a page out of the hacktivist playbook," he says. In the same way that it's hard to take down Twitter accounts belonging to groups such as Anonymous, it's hard to completely curtail the ability to terror groups to communicate simply by shutting down Twitter accounts and taking down websites. "What they are doing is more of simple harassment. In the end it is not going to help law enforcement to prevent an actual physical attack like what happened in Paris," Gallop said.

There's also the question of whether efforts by Anonymous and others to take down sites and channels that terrorist supporters might be using to communicate could actually disrupt law enforcement investigations.

When such activities are not undertaken in coordination with counterterrorism practitioners from within government, the actions of groups such as Anonymous can become counterproductive, says Michael Smith II, principal and chief operating officer at Kronos Advisory, a strategic advisory firm.

"Unless these activities are being coordinated with investigators who possess the authority to disrupt terrorists’ activities, there is a good chance these activities will prove disruptive in relation to ongoing investigations," Mr. Smith warns.

Smith currently acts as an intermediary in funneling ISIS-related data, collected by a group called Ghost Security Group, to government counter-terrorism officials. The focus is on passing along information gathered by the group related to ISIS attack plots and recruitment efforts. 

Members of Ghost Security Group previously belonged to GhostSec, a group of hacktivists that like Anonymous has been working to disrupt the online activities of Islamic terror groups such as ISIS, Al Qaeda and Al Shabab. In fact, GhostSec was one of two hacktivist groups that worked with Anonymous to expose the Twitter accounts of ISIS supporters, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year.

By setting up Ghost Security Group, some members of GhostSec have deliberately distanced themselves from Anonymous and its legacy of hooded figures and Guy Fawkes masks. The goal in shedding the outlaw image is to get government counter terrorism officials to pay more attention to the data they are collecting on ISIS and other terror groups. 

The effort is paying off, Smith claimed. In July 2015, Ghost Security Group handed over information to federal authorities that was used to disrupt a plan to attack Jews and British citizens in Tunisia.

Since September, Smith has acted as an intermediary between Ghost Security and the government, supplying official with information on the Islamic State’s use of certain communications platforms that are more difficult to monitor than Twitter or Facebook.

"Data collected by Ghost Security Group and passed to law enforcement and intelligence professionals by me has added value to counterterrorism operations," Smith said, pointing to an article in Foreign Policy before the Paris terror attacks in which former Gen. David Petraeus is quoted as saying information provided by organizations like Ghost Security Group could be of value to government.

Governments have been overwhelmed by the Islamic State's prolific use of Internet technologies to coordinate jihadist activities, in the West in the Middle East and North Africa. So there's plenty of room for outside support, Smith said.

"However, any activities which are not coordinated with government officials who possess the authority to go out and make arrests, or direct other actions against the Islamic State can inadvertently serve to benefit the enemy."


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