The announcement that hacktivist collective Anonymous has declared war on the Islamic State has been received positively by the public. After the Paris attack some may think governments are not doing enough to protect civilians, so at least it seems someone is doing something about the terrorist threat.
So far the group claims its #OpParis has taken down more than 5,500 IS-related Twitter accounts – an impressive claim the press has gleefully and unquestioningly repeated. Anonymous certainly can shut down social media accounts, having done so following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, during what it called #OpIsis. In the aftermath, similar claims were made then, yet less than a year later, there still exist thousands of Twitter accounts to be taken down.
Many have opined, including on this site, that this is a positive development, even going so far as to suggest governments could cooperate with Anonymous in a cyberwar against IS. As a long-time observer of Anonymous, however, I am considerably more sceptical. Not a single Anonymous action could have avoided the Paris atrocities.
In her excellent book on Anonymous, anthropologist Gabriella Coleman describes in detail the planning and organisation behind many of the most successful Anonymous operations: against Scientology, or against controversial copyright law firm ACS:Law. Anonymous is an idea, a collective loosely organised using online communication tools, which anyone with even a small amount of technical knowledge can join. The distributed organisation means there is no central voice, although a sort of hierarchy seems to emerge from the chaos. This structure is not unlike IS.
The distributed nature of the collective makes it a very resilient network mostly organised around a common set of ideals. It would be almost impossible to shut Anonymous down. Again, not unlike IS.
Having said that, it’s clear that Anonymous could have some effect against the jihadist propaganda machine. IS has a very sophisticated PR apparatus that makes use of internet outlets including Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and their own proprietary apps. There’s even evidence that they may have moved communications to the dark net, so anything that could affect their capabilities must be welcome.
However, IS also share many of the distributed characteristics that makes Anonymous so difficult to destroy. They constantly shift from one online communications tool to another depending on how law enforcement approach them. So while Anonymous may be successful in bringing down jihadist Twitter accounts and even websites, they face a game of whack-a-mole. This is precisely what makes internet regulation so difficult to enforce as the internet was designed to work around systematic attacks.
A cyberwar is not enough
In any case, I seriously doubt Anonymous can wage the kind of cyberwarfare that would cripple the Islamic State in the real world. The idea that a group such as Anonymous can hack into bank accounts and empty them is far-fetched, and there’s nothing to indicate that IS has a complex online infrastructure that could be affected by cyber-attacks. It’s also very unlikely that the type of financial operations IS conducts would have any exposure to online attacks: most reputable reports suggest that its funds come through “oil sales, kidnap ransoms, smuggling, extortion, taxes, looting, bank robberies”.
There is enough complexity to how the jihadist recruiters operate that the removal of some Twitter accounts will not have any long-lasting effect. Those who attacked Paris this year are homegrown terrorists, French citizens radicalised by marginalisation, deprivation, ideology, and racism. Many in the Paris and Brussels terrorist cells were related, which suggests the online element is only secondary.
Finally, it’s possible that we’re just expecting too much from Anonymous. I am rather fond of a trope known as the Hollywood Hacker, where super-users and impossibly-fast computer nerds can hack into anything in seconds, access any system at any time, guess any password, and bring entire cities or militaries to their knees. When we hear about Anonymous “taking on IS”, it’s difficult not to smile at the thought of photogenic hackers accessing the “IS mainframe” located in a hidden fortress in Syria. The reality is far more mundane, however, a combination of social engineering, discovering and exploiting software vulnerabilities, brute-force attacks on poorly implemented security such as encryption, or subverting systems with malware. The Hollywood Hacker is a myth; Anonymous is partly mythological, too.
Anonymous may have a role to play, and even proving a nuisance to IS is no bad thing. But we shouldn’t pin our hopes to magical solutions from shadowy hacktivist groups. As ET Brooking has written, “cast against seismic events like the fall of Palmyra or fight for Ramadi, this internet war looks small”. IS will not be defeated by keyboards and internet connections alone.