Can Hackers and Western Security Services Win the Online War against ISIS? Keyboard Warriors-Official and Otherwise-Are Trying to Degrade and Destroy ISIS's Online Propaganda Efforts and Expose Its Schemes

By Gidda, Mirren | Newsweek, December 4, 2015 | Go to article overview

Can Hackers and Western Security Services Win the Online War against ISIS? Keyboard Warriors-Official and Otherwise-Are Trying to Degrade and Destroy ISIS's Online Propaganda Efforts and Expose Its Schemes


Gidda, Mirren, Newsweek


Byline: Mirren Gidda

One day after the attacks in Paris on November 13--in which young men affiliated with the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) killed a total of 130 people at six locations across the French capital--a video began making the rounds online. With its dramatic theme music and slick graphics, it looked more like an action film than an Internet release. "We are Anonymous," the letters on the screen read. "We are uniting humanity. Expect us."

Soon after the video emerged, members of the hacking collective Anonymous began reporting the Twitter accounts of people they believed to be supporters of ISIS to the site's administrators in the hope that the accounts would then be deleted. Anonymous claims to have already helped take down more than 20,000 ISIS-friendly Twitter profiles since the Paris attacks. The hacktivists--activists who use computers to achieve their political goals--often include the same hashtag in their tweets: #OpParis, a rallying cry against the militants.

The war against ISIS takes many forms. Both Russia and a U.S.-led coalition are conducting airstrikes against the group, hoping to destroy its command centers, supply stores and training camps. The U.S. is also arming moderate rebels to help defeat the group. And in the virtual world, keyboard warriors--some on government payrolls, others working on their own time--are trying to degrade and destroy the group's online propaganda efforts, shut down its supporters' social media accounts and expose extremist plots. Hackers and government officials--old adversaries, for the most part--have found themselves fighting a common enemy.

In response to Anonymous's pledge to attack ISIS online, the Islamic militants issued supporters a guide on how to avoid being hacked. "Anonymous hackers threatened in [a] new video release that they will carry out a major hack operation on the Islamic State," the statement read. "Idiots," the author added.

Anonymous may be outing pro-ISIS social media accounts, but critics are questioning the effectiveness of operations such as #OpParis. What impact does deleting social media profiles have, they ask, when people with guns are shooting civilians in the streets?

In a paper titled "The ISIS Twitter Census"--published by the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy, a Washington-based research unit--authors J.M. Berger, a nonresident fellow at Brookings, and Jonathon Morgan, a data scientist, found that from September through December 2014 ISIS supporters used at least 46,000 Twitter accounts--more than twice the number Anonymous claims to have helped unplug. A hacker called DigitaShadow, formerly of Anonymous, tells Newsweek the attempts by Anonymous to delete ISIS-linked social media accounts and websites are not particularly effective when the group can still carry out attacks in real life.

DigitaShadow, who declined to give his real name for security reasons, describes himself as the executive director of Ghost Security Group. Speaking by phone, DigitaShadow says he is an American who previously worked in computer security. Ghost Security Group, he says, was founded on January 10 and now comprises 14 members who are focused on foiling ISIS attacks, as well as exposing the Twitter accounts of ISIS allies and fanboys. Ghost Security Group claims to have uncovered plans for assaults in New York, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. The Tunisia and New York attacks were planned for July of this year, the former to hit a crowded market, the latter, Times Square, DigitaShadow says. The aborted Saudi Arabia attacks, which eventually led to hundreds of arrests, were aimed at various mosques, he adds.

It is impossible to verify many of the claims hacktivists--including Ghost Security Group--make. The Saudi arrests did happen, for example; less certain is whether Ghost Security Group had anything to do with the sweep. The FBI did not respond to Newsweek's requests for comment on whether it has used the group's information, but Michael Smith, co-founder of Kronos Advisory, a U. …

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