The hacktivist group Anonymous has doubled down on its digital war against ISIS.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, the group released a video declaring, “We are Anonymous. We are legion. We don’t forgive. We don’t forget. Wait for us.”
This is a digital war that took shape after the Charlie Hebdo attacks last year, says Gabriella Coleman author of the book, "Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous.” The hacktivists have focused on attacking ISIS’ social media propaganda machine.
“What Anonymous has done primarily is locate all those Twitter accounts and report them. They have also tried to take down websites and they’ve also infiltrated their forums to gather intelligence as well,” says Coleman.
In the war of hacking skills, says Coleman, Anonymous far outperforms ISIS.
“While it is certainly the case that ISIS has attracted programmers and engineers, nevertheless the great majority of people attracted to ISIS don’t have those computer skills, whereas many geeks and hackers are attracted to Anonymous. So, just by numbers alone, more of them do have deeper technical skills.”
However the kinds of geeks and hackers that have been attracted to Anonymous’ fight, says Coleman, are a diverse group.
“There are obviously people from France who are directly affected. This also attracts what I call military geeks and hackers. Finally, and most surprisingly, there have been participants from the Middle East. People logged on from Syria saying, ‘ISIS has affected us, they’re killing us, how can we help?”
In a strange way, Anonymous’ goal of taking down ISIS seems somewhat aligned with the very governments and intelligence agencies who they have acted against in the past. Anonymous’ war against terror has even taken Coleman by surprise.
“Three years ago, if you asked me if Anonymous would ever fight terrorists I probably would’ve said no. It wasn't really something of interest to them. And it’s also an operation that would align them with US geopolitical interests. Generally, they are fighting the government, not working alongside the government,” she says.
But the attacks on Charlie Hebdo nearly a year ago changed the conversation.
The terrorists attacked journalists, and suddenly it became a fight for freedom of the press.
“Anonymous, even though they have a difficult relationship with journalism, nevertheless believe in a free press. They saw that terrorist attack as one against free press, and that helps explain why they jumped into the fold against terrorism at that particular point,” Coleman says.
Anonymous splinter groups like Ghostsec are even working with intelligence communities.
“I believe they are able to work with intelligence organizations precisely because they have disassociated themselves with Anonymous, who otherwise pisses off the US government and law enforcement.”
While Anonymous continues its battle with ISIS, the terrorist group has been able to post freely on a messaging app called Telegram. But that could be coming to an end.
“It’s a really simple app. The people who make it say it’s end-to-end encrypted,” says Avi Asher Schapiro of Vice News.
Schapiro says the app was created by two Russian brothers who wanted to create an application that could evade Russian intelligence.
“They're very stalwart about not shutting off channels, about not blocking people. They say it’s a free speech issue,” he says.
And that’s what has made it popular with ISIS supporters. Unlike on Twitter — for example — they haven’t been shut down. The group was even able to post its claim of responsibility for the attacks in Paris on Telegram.
But in the wake of the Paris attacks, the network shut down 78 ISIS-related accounts, across 12 languages.
“That’s where a lot of the messages coming out after the Paris attack were found, and that’s where Islamic State researchers, experts and journalists turned to immediately to see if there would be a statement of responsibility,” Schapiro says.
The Vice reporter has been looking at some of the content on the ISIS channels on Telegram, and he says he was surprised by what he saw.
“It really ranges from the grotesque executions, and violence, and military bravado to really mundane, everyday stuff,” he says.
Some of the posts include images of health clinics opening up or doctors performing operations. Others show photos of public transport.
Schapiro says that’s exactly what ISIS wants others to know.
“That’s the main part of their propaganda,” he says, “Life goes on here, life is normal here.”
But they may have to find a new place to spread that message now.