By E.T. Brooking, published on Foreign Policy
For John Chase, the breaking point came on Jan. 7, when al Qaeda-linked militants gunned down 12 people at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo. Subsequent attacks by a gunman affiliated with the Islamic State would take five more lives. Watching triumphant jihadi messages bounce across Twitter, the 25-year-old Boston native was incensed. They needed to be stopped.
Although Chase’s formal education ended with high school, computers were second nature to him. He had begun fiddling with code at the age of 7 and freelanced as a web designer and social media strategist. He now turned these skills to fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Centralizing other hacktivists’ efforts, he compiled a database of 26,000 Islamic State-linked Twitter accounts. He helped build a website to host the list in public view and took steps to immunize it against hacking counterattacks by Islamic State sympathizers. He even assumed an appropriately hacker-sounding nom de guerre, “XRSone,” and engaged any reporter who would listen. In doing so, Chase briefly became an unofficial spokesman for #OpISIS — and part of one of the strangest conflicts of the 21st century.
For more than a year, a ragtag collection of casual volunteers, seasoned coders, and professional trolls has waged an online war against the Islamic State and its virtual supporters. Many in this anti-Islamic State army identify with the infamous hacking collective Anonymous. They are based around the world and hail from every walk of life. They have virtually nothing in common except a passion for computers and a feeling that, with its torrent of viral-engineered propaganda and concerted online recruiting, the Islamic State has trespassed in their domain. The hacktivists have vowed to fight back.
The effort has ebbed and flowed, but the past nine months have seen a significant increase in both the frequency and visibility of online attacks against the Islamic State. To date, hacktivists claim to have dismantled some 149 Islamic State-linked websites and flagged roughly 101,000 Twitter accounts and 5,900 propaganda videos. At the same time, this casual association of volunteers has morphed into a new sort of organization, postured to combat the Islamic State in both the Twitter “town square” and the bowels of the deep web.
Chase, who has since shifted his focus to other pursuits, boasts a story typical of those volunteers who work to track and counteract the Islamic State’s online propaganda apparatus. Few of these hacktivists are hood-wearing, network-cracking, Internet savants. Instead, they are part-time hobbyists, possessed of a strong sense of justice and a disdain for fundamentalists of all stripes. Many, but not all, are young people — some are more seasoned, former military or security specialists pursuing a second calling. The oldest is 50. These hacktivists speak of a desire to “do something” in the fight against the Islamic State, even if that “something” may sometimes just amount to running suspicious Twitter accounts through Google Translate.
This is something new. Anonymous arose from the primordial, and often profane, underground web forums to cause mischief, not to take sides in real wars. The group gained notoriety for its random, militantly apolitical, increasingly organized hacking attacks during the mid-2000s. Its first “political” operation was an Internet crusade against the Church of Scientology following its suppression of a really embarrassing Tom Cruise video.
In time, however, Anonymous operations became less about laughs and more about causes, fighting the establishment and guaranteeing a free and open Internet. In 2010, the group launched #OpPayback, retaliating against PayPal for, among other things, suspending payments to WikiLeaks following the publication of a trove of classified U.S. documents. This was followed by a cascade of increasingly political operations: in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring protests; against the CIA and Interpol; against Muslim discrimination in Myanmar; and on behalf of democratic activists in Hong Kong. Most recently, Anonymous launched a muddled campaign against purported members of the Ku Klux Klan. As Paul Williams, a hacktivist writer and occasional documentarian, writes in a colorful history of the group, “Anonymous had come to the conclusion that they were no longer abstractly playing with scatology and paedo bears.”
Today, in the fight against the Islamic State, the hacking collective finds itself split by a potentially existential crisis. If Anonymous defends the unrestricted use of the Internet, should this guarantee not apply to everyone, including Islamic State militants? What exactly does it mean when members of a group formed to flout authority find themselves sharing many of the same goals as the U.S. government? In public and private debates that range across cyberspace, self-identifying Anonymous members struggle to reconcile the group’s past with its uncertain present. Although some anti-Islamic State operatives now disavow their connection to Anonymous (intending to avoid precisely this issue), the distinction is hardly so clear to outside observers. #OpISIS and Anonymous share many of the same members, the same motifs, and the same tactics.
To most hacktivists involved in the day-to-day work of #OpISIS, however, it’s really not that complicated. Writing on a Reddit community forum devoted to Anonymous, one member summed up the anti-Islamic State position simply: “Taking away the free speech from a group that is advocating the end of free speech is delicious fun. Telling someone who’d happily chop off your head and mine on national tv to get lost is delicious fun too.” (The subreddit where this appeared has subsequently been hacked.)
Like most hacktivist groups, #OpISIS is ostensibly flat and leaderless, though day-to-day operations are sustained by a few dozen long-serving members who form the concrete core of the movement. In turn, they guide the efforts of hundreds of volunteers. Fragmentary groups tend to focus on different things (taking down websites, tagging Twitter accounts, locating propaganda videos, infiltrating jihadi forums), their roles converging and diverging at random. The result is organic and more than a little chaotic. But it works.