Whatever else ISIS, ISIL, Daesh may be—a group of religious fundamentalists, general terrorists, people with an ambition to become religious despots—it is at the moment a community. A dangerous community.
In religion, its members may be pre-medieval (which is almost an insult to the pre-medieval era), but Daesh’s members take full advantage of the many tools our current, plugged-in era offers: inexpensive smart phones and global cell phone coverage, ubiquitous Wi-Fi, and the dozens if not hundreds of social media platforms one can use to declaim ideology, assert ambitions, cheer each other on while pursuing bargain prices on new weapons purchases. Daesh’s members publish blogs, Tweet, own Facebook and VK accounts, put homemade videos on YouTube and elsewhere. There are other individuals out there who may not share in the religion-based hatred but who love violence and carnage, so they join in the online noise and learn what they can do to support the spread of religious bloodshed.
Who could possibly help separate the chatter from the actionable intelligence? Who could possibly thwart the next Paris-style, multiple-front attack? Who could possibly make it more difficult for Daesh members to communicate with one another, without looking like a government was doing the snooping? Is there anyone out there who can step up and be our assh*les for freedom?
Yes. Before dawn this morning, this announcement from a portion of the hacktivist group Anonymous appeared on Twitter:
— #OpParis (@opparisofficial) November 16, 2015
The only way to verify this number is to request the Twitter handles and see what happens when one tries to visit them. This has not been done, and I have only checked the few handles that I have seen reported as being knocked offline by Anonymous members. Sometimes, a member of Anonymous will supply a list of dead accounts, and indeed, my own spot-checking has shown me that one after another, the accounts indeed are down, are not responding, or were hacked by Anonymous or someone claiming affiliation with it.
Anonymous declared this weekend that it is launching its “biggest operation ever” to identify and compromise the Islamic State’s online communications, mainly social media accounts. It says that it will not employ traditional methods of taking down online targets, such as denial-of-service attacks, but wants to remove Islamic State-related social media accounts and leak information that could identify those running them. PR Week reports: “The main OpParis Twitter account said Anonymous is organizing the operation into four teams: intel gathering, analysis, publishing, and media relations.”
PR Week continues, “Though Anonymous and other hacktivist groups may pose little physical threat to terrorist organizations, the Islamic State heavily uses social media and other channels to communicate, plan attacks, and recruit members and supporters.”
Daesh’s members live in a casually tech-savvy communications world, like most of the rest of us do. It even offers its members a sickening emoji keyboard to use in instant messages: instead of a winking face or a heart, the board offers gruesome pictures of beheadings, the flag of ISIS, photos of the Jordanian pilot being incinerated in a cage. Daesh most frequently uses the service Telegram, which was launched in 2013 by the founders of VK, which is Russia’s version of Facebook (it even uses a blue color scheme). Just as I am glad that Sprint does not monitor my winks and hearts in my instant messages with my girlfriend, Telegram told reporter Lisa Daftari this week that, “All Telegram chats and group chats are private territory of their respective participants and we do not process any requests related to them. But sticker sets and bots on Telegram are publically (sic) available. If you find sticker sets or bots on Telegram that you think are illegal, please ping us.” Daftari has not reported if the emoji board has been taken down or not.
Daesh uses social media to spread propaganda, fire up its base with violent videos, and share plans. It uses social media to recruit. Knocking 4000 Twitter accounts offline may have created a delay in planning the next horror.
Anonymous released a video statement Saturday morning that declared “Operation Isis,” or OpIsis, is continuing and can also be referred to as “OpParis.” The hacktivist collective took up the cause last January after the murders in the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo. At the time, Anonymous wrote, “We are Muslims, Christians, Jews. We are hackers, crackers, Hacktivist, phishers, agents, spies, or just the guy from next door. We are young and old, gay or straight […] we come from all races, countries, religions and ethnicities—united as one, divided by zero. We are Anonymous. We will hunt you, take down your sites, accounts, emails, and expose you. From now on, there [will be] no safe place for you online—you will be treated like a virus, and we are the cure. We own the internet now.” At the time, Anonymous also reminded viewers that Isis does not represent Islam or the Muslim world.
The newest statement reads: “France is shocked by the events caused by terrorism in the capital. We first wish to express our sorrow and our solidarity with the victims, the injured, and their families. To defend our values and our freedom, we’re tracking down members of the terrorist group responsible these attacks, we will not give up, we will not forgive, and we’ll do all that is necessary to end their actions. During the attacks of Charlie Hebdo, we had already expressed our determination to neutralize anyone who would attack our freedom. We’ll be doing the same now, because of the recents (sic) attacks. We therefore ask you to gather and to defend these ideals. Expect a total mobilization on our part. This violence should not weaken us. It has to give us the strength to come together and fight tirrany (sic) and obscurantism together.”
The video, from a group called Anonymous Italy:
The video was put together quickly, it appears. The individuals in Anonymous videos usually have their faces and voices obscured. Thus, two hours ago, the above was released in a new video:
On the aforementioned Telegram messaging service, an Isis spokesman published a video reply to Anonymous this afternoon. According to Business Insider, a masked figure declares, “We will launch the biggest operation ever against you. Expect massive cyberattacks. War is declared. Get prepared.” The report continues, “A Telegram channel that’s believed to be affiliated with ISIS hackers then sent out a message to its followers instructing them how to prevent getting hacked by Anonymous: ‘The #Anonymous hackers threatened in new video release that they will carry out a major hack operation on the Islamic state (idiots). What they gonna hack?,’ noting that so far Anonymous has just hacked ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts and emails.”
There are issues that are almost as large as terrorism, freedom of thought and expression, or freedom from religious oppression at hand in this story. As alluded to in Telegram’s response to Lisa Daftari, a hosting company does not own the statements made by users while using a service. It does not and will not police them. For a few hours on Friday, Facebook suspended a private group that claims to be dedicated to outing Facebook accounts that are run by Daesh or are sympathetic to it. (Some commentators on YouTube claim to think that this contributed to the fact that the Paris attacks transpired a couple hours later that day.)
Earlier this year, Europol stated that it estimates there are 50,000 Daesh Twitter accounts that publish 100,000 messages each day. With Facebook, Twitter, and probably VK, any user can suggest for a review that a particular post should be deleted or user suspended, and each of these services deletes posts and suspends users every day. An average user can bring posts to the attention of law enforcement; just last week, my alma mater, Marist College, was shut down for a day because vague threats against “Marist colage” were seen on Twitter.
Anonymous reported this spring that it has found several hundred websites run by Daesh or individuals seriously sympathetic to it, and that most of them use CloudFlare, a content hosting company like WordPress, the company I use. Anonymous has reported that CloudFlare is “protecting” these sites because, “If Facebook and Twitter can remove ISIS content when reported why should CloudFlare not?” That is a fair question. CloudFlare’s CEO, Matthew Prince, told SC Magazine UK that his company does not directly host most of the sites in question, that there are law enforcement channels available for everyone to use and report potential crimes but law enforcement has “never” asked CloudFlare to close a website, and that intelligence agencies would probably prefer that Daesh websites be kept up and running so they can be monitored.
Whatever Anonymous can do to make it more difficult for Islamic State members to plan and train and raise funds, I am all for it. Whatever Anonymous can do to trace those funds, I hope it does.
Both sides are growing ever more capable at sophisticated cyber-warfare (the “Cyber Caliphate,” Daesh’s version of Anonymous, took over a television station in France this spring and used it to publish French soldiers’ ID tags), but only one of these sides is pro-death and pro-bloodshed. Earlier today, while I was writing this, a video was released by an Islamic State group that promises more Paris-style attacks, specifically in Washington, DC.
The fight is on.
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