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The War on the Web

Three weeks ago, on November 13, gunmen killed 129 people and injured hundreds more in six separate attacks in Paris, France. After taking responsibility for the massacres, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was met with a strong response by the French government. Police have launched investigations across Europe, raiding properties and arresting suspects in France and Belgium. French military forces have started a series of strikes, targeting sites under the control of ISIL in Syria. In addition to theseair and land retaliations, though, ISIL has also faced increasing pressure in another domain of warfare: cyberspace.

Just hours after the attacks in Paris last month, the Internet hacking group Anonymous released a new video. In the footage, a cloaked figure wearing the iconic mask of Guy Fawkes declared war against ISIL, warning the terror group, “[t]his is only the beginning […] We will hunt you, take down your sites, accounts, emails and expose you.” The coordinated hacking campaign, named #OpParis after the attacks, marks the start of a modern warfare era. No longer is combat confined to the conduct of military personnel on battlefields in distant countries.  Like Anonymous’ operation against ISIL, recent activity shows that conflict today is something everyone can participate in, regardless of location. In the Age of the Internet, war is as accessible as the nearest computer.

Anonymous first began to realize this twelve years ago, after initial conversations on the imageboard site 4chan led to the formation of the collective. Over the years, the online group has grown significantly. With no central leadership, any “anon” is able to launch an operation and participate in the efforts of others. This means Anonymous can act in many different fields at the same time. Hackers claiming membership have been involved with everything from public information sharing to data destruction and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Its biggest hacks have targeted systems associated with the government of Zimbabwe, the Federal Reserve, and MasterCard. Despite legal run-ins with the authorities, Anonymous has continued to gain influence around the world.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Anonymous’ latest target is ISIL. The Islamist group is known to rely on social media for much of its recruitment initiatives, posting propaganda videos from affiliated accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Recent hacks of United States Central Command social media accounts were claimed by the Cyber Caliphate, a group which supports ISIL. Determined to curb their online presence, Anonymous began acting against the terror group in June 2014, and has since launched a more targeted campaign after the Charlie Hebdo shooting earlier this year.

With the most recent attacks on Paris, Anonymous has resumed its focus on ISIL, publishing a list of 20,000 ISIL-affiliated Twitter accounts. The hacktivist community has also spammed extremist social media trends, “rick rolling” hashtags like “#Daesh” (the common Arabic acronym for ISIL) with the infamous Internet meme of Rick Astley’s 1980s hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” As former Anonymous activist Deric Lostutter explained, easy efforts like these “give people ways to communicate and rise up the same way the American government funds rebels, we fund them with internet connections [and] communication methods and that’s the biggest weapon of all.”

The problem, however, is that these tactics sometimes lack precision. As a New York Times article detailed, Anonymous uses “a tool that searches certain keywords on social media,” in order to create its list of suspect Twitter accounts. With this method, online operations “risk creating a crude online dragnet that penalizes Arabic speakers and sometimes sweeps up journalists and others with no Islamic State links.” The recently posted list includes the Twitter accounts of the White House and US State Department, along with figures like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. With no central verification procedure, “attention-seeking hackers” may be independently “working under the Anonymous banner” to compose these catalogs themselves. Twitter has yet to investigate the #OpParis list published by Anonymous, largely because it includes numerous innocent accounts.

Anonymous may be somewhat undermining ISIL’s online presence for now, but their efforts risk making the terror group stronger in the long run. Current government concerns, for instance, are focused on ISIL’s use of encrypted technology. An “operational security” guide distributed by the group explains how extremists can use apps like Telegram to communicate “in the dark” and avoid government surveillance. With the increased online threat posed by groups like Anonymous on top of state surveillance, ISIL may start taking extra security precautions in the future. This will make their communications harder to detect and their attacks more difficult to prevent.

In its attacks, Anonymous also acts independently of any government. Without considering federal initiatives already in place, it risks disrupting pre-existing counterintelligence programs and authorized monitoring of extremist activity on the web. As Lawrence Husick, the co-chairman for the Center for the Study of Terrorism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute explained, Anonymous “is likely to implicate people who follow ISIS but don’t support it […] for research and intelligence purposes.” The hackers’ campaign is self-defeating because of this. With every ISIL account deactivated, a new one will take its place, stronger and less likely to be detected on the dark networks of the Internet.

Frustrated by these weaknesses, several activists decided to leave Anonymous to form an offshoot organization. Created earlier this year, Ghost Security Group is composed of 15 volunteers working in countries around the world. Not the case with Anonymous, a single representative named DigitaShadow leads Ghost Security Group and the body greater control over its daily activities. According to DigitaShadow, the group also has “translators, linguists, research analysts on hand to analyze all the data that we receive.” This allows for greater collaboration with government, especially for sharing information to fight against terror. Under this model, Ghost Security Group has claimed responsibility for downing almost 150 ISIL websites, 110,000 social media feeds, and 6,000 videos. The elite group has also thwarted potential attacks, helping make arrests this summer in Tunisia after pulling location information from the web.

With groups like Ghost Security Group and Anonymous operating on the Internet, it is clear that the nature of warfare is shifting today. As Scott J. White, the director of computing and security technology at Drexel University, describes it, “[t]he groups engaging in terrorism have not changed what they are doing, just how they are doing it.” With both “sides raised in a social media age,” the Internet is a tool that is changing the way the world interacts, even how it carries out war.

What is perhaps most fascinating about the recent wave of non-state cyber initiatives is how easy it is to get involved. Professor Gabrielle Coleman of McGill University explained how “[p]eople go into these forums and try to cull intelligence data themselves” in a form of “citizen intelligence-gathering.” Suddenly with the Internet, citizens around the world are able to fight against terror groups like ISIL from the safety of their homes.

In many ways, though, this kind of citizen vigilantism is not a completely new process. Throughout history, citizens have taken it upon themselves to contribute to efforts independent of their governments. In both World War I and World War II, groups of Americans went off to fight in Europe before the government had officially declared war. Even earlier, in the mid-nineteenth century, American sailors were known to contribute to US war efforts, using their vessels as privateers against foreign shipping routes. Building on these precedents, contemporary cyber operations are just the latest iteration in a rich history of citizens’ war activism.

With the recent #OpParis campaign launched by Anonymous and the ongoing operations of Ghost Security Group, war has found a new place on the Internet. Independent hacktivists are able to track extremist activity themselves, as non-governmental collectives take up virtual arms against today’s most wanted terror groups. Instead of states, the coalition against ISIL is increasingly made up of individuals working from the comfort of their computer screens. Beyond the battlefield, conflict today is being waged between the trends of Twitter feeds. A few clicks and codes away, the war on the web has begun – and it’s here to stay.


About the Author

Jason Ginsberg '16 is a staff writer and a political science concentrator.