Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Did Anonymous Just Save the World from ISIL?

Did Anonymous Just Save the World from ISIL?

  • Clint Watts
  • November 25, 2015
  • Middle East Program
  • Center for the Study of Terrorism

Last week, a new cyber front emerged in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Anonymous, the hacker collective principally known for its website defacements and account takedowns for political causes, initiated #OpParis, aimed at defeating ISIL online. This is not the first Anonymous campaign against ISIL. Their previous foray several months back, more obviously named #OpISIS, failed to cultivate a strong following or endure. But Anonymous hackers, likely bearing witness to ISIL violence in European neighborhoods in which many likely roost, have energized their legion and drawn interest from media outlets.

Reactions to #OpParis are mixed. It is encouraging to see the collective take on a noble goal in contrast to many of their other campaigns that vary in merit. Everyone hates ISIL and Anonymous has skills. Why shouldn’t the hacker collective join in a campaign to root out evil? And who better for Anonymous to challenge than a terrorist group that so prolifically uses the Internet to radicalize and recruit their foreign fighters and social media fan boys.

Thus far, Anonymous’ primary modus operandi has been to take down ISIL social media accounts and initiate Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on key terrorist forums. This immediately raises several issues.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many other social media companies policed ISIL accounts much more aggressively this year. ISIL social media accounts today have a short life span and the effects of continued shutdowns have stunted the group’s propaganda dissemination. So a question naturally arises: Do we need Anonymous to do account shutdowns at this point?

Another clear problem with Anonymous campaign seems to be their targeting. Anonymous claims to have shut down 20,000 ISIL Twitter accounts. Yet J.M Berger, who at the height of ISIL’s online presence conducted the ISIS Twitter Censusestimated there to be roughly 46,000 ISIL Twitter accounts in November 2014. Seeing how social media companies have opened an assault on ISIS accounts this past year, it appears doubtful that 20,000 ISIL Twitter accounts still remain. J.M. Berger, when queried about the claim of 20,000 account takedowns, stated, “I can’t vouch for it, but I can’t totally rule it out. It seems unlikely.” Thus, a second question arises: How does Anonymous know they are targeting ISIL accounts? While the collective clearly brings a wide range of computer skills to the fight, their understanding of terrorism is probably lacking. Combined with the fact that the majority of Anonymous members reside in Europe and North America, it seems doubtful the collective retains sufficient Arabic language skills for properly vetting accounts.

Assuming the collective lacks appropriate counterterrorism research skills and linguistic capabilities, Anonymous must then fall back on…

Continue reading “Did Anonymous Just Save the World from ISIL?”