After the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday, the hacktivist group Anonymous has "declared war" on ISIS. As is typical for the group, the declaration was delivered in a dramatic YouTube manifesto by an anonymous figure wearing a Guy Fawkes mask.
"Know that we will find you and we will never let up," the figure says in French, according to the video subtitles. "We are going to launch the biggest ever operation against you. Expect very many cyber attacks."
However, many security analysts and cyber-watchers wonder whether such attacks could accomplish anything significant at all in the struggle against ISIS, as well-meaning though it may be. Is Anonymous' war on ISIS meaningless, or even potentially damaging to the cause it's trying to help?
On Tuesday, #OpParis, the pseudo-official Anonymous Twitter account for the anti-ISIS offensive, bragged about getting more than 5,500 ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts suspended. The group also set up a website to report ISIS sympathizers and list them in a database. The site, however, still appears to be under construction.
The declaration of war was gleefully covered by countless media outlets, as Anonymous scholar Biella Coleman noted on Twitter, helping to imbue the hacktivist group with a degree of credibility. But despite all the attention, it's unclear how this so-called war is going to have impact the conflict at all. It's certainly unlikely to change events on the battlefield, where ISIS fighters have bigger worries than teenage hackers.
But, it's unlikely to make much of a mark online, either. In its past confrontations with ISIS, all Anonymous has been able to do is limit the (still very large) number of ISIS-affiliated social media accounts, and take down some ISIS-linked sites for a while, flooding them with bogus traffic using their weapon of choice—the distributed denial of service attack, or DDoS.
Security researcher Colin Anderson tweeted on Monday that he "won't be particularly impressed with#OpISIS/#OpParis [the hashtags used by Anonymous to advertise its current anti-ISIS activities] until a battalion of armed Internet nerds in Guy Fawkes masks attempt assault on [the Syrian city of] Raqqa."
Collin AndersonNovember 16, 2015
Anonymous' war on ISIS is actually nothing new. Some hackers who claimed to be affiliated with the group, which is amorphous by nature, have been targeting ISIS websites and Twitter accounts since at least last summer. This online skirmish flares up and gets media attention every time there's a high profile attack, as happened after the assault on the headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo earlier this year.
In January, some Anonymous-affiliated groups also declared war on ISIS, and bragged about taking down websites affiliated with the terror group. Similarly, hackers sympathizing with ISIS responded by defacing as many as 19,000 random and poorly secured French websites, according to the country's cyberdefense chief.
Since then, the online skirmish has been quietly raging. But Anonymous' only achievement, it appears, is keeping the number of Twitter accounts spreading ISIS propaganda "mostly flat," according to J.M. Berger. Berger is a well-known terrorism expert and co-author of the book ISIS: The State of Terror, who revealed in a study in March that ISIS used at least 46,000 Twitter accounts in the span of three months at the end of last year.
"The important thing is that it is not growing appreciably since late summer," Berger, told Motherboard in an email. "Also, users who are repeatedly suspended see their networks shrink dramatically when they come back with new accounts."
But Anonymous has little else to show for its ongoing war on ISIS.
Another hacktivist group. which formerly was affiliated with Anonymous, seems to have been more effective. The group is called Ghost Security Group, and its members claim to be former military or information security expert, and they claim to have taken down 149 ISIS or jihadist websites, 107,000 social media accounts, and 6,000 YouTube videos, according to one of its leaders, who calls himself Digital Shadow.
"We feel that stopping attacks is more important than DDoS'ing websites."
The group claims to be passing intelligence on ISIS members and operations to the US government. This information has helped stop attacks, according to Digital Shadow, who told Motherboard that he used to be an Anonymous member years ago. Motherboard was not able to confirm whether these claims are true. But Michael Smith, the head of a US defense consultancy firm, has been acting as a liaison between Ghost Security Group and the US government, and echoed the group's claims that they had disrupted ISIS operations.
That's why Digital Shadow agrees Anonymous hasn't been very effective so far.
"We feel that stopping attacks is more important than DDoS'ing websites," Digital Shadow said in a phone interview. "But everybody is doing anything they can."
The hacker added that at times Anonymous has taken down websites that were better left online, since they provided useful intelligence.
The group has distanced itself from Anonymous because the hacktivist group "has no centralized leadership and everybody can kind of do what they want," Digital Shadow said. Ghost Security Group, on the other hand, sees itself as a counter-terrorism organization that needs "structure and leadership."
Ultimately, despite its declarations of war on YouTube, Anonymous has yet to prove that its anti-ISIS campaign goes beyond grandiloquent rhetoric, forcing Twitter to take down some ISIS-affiliated accounts, and some DDoS attacks.