In the wake of the murderous terror attacks in Paris on 7 January, hacking collective Anonymous posted a video on its Belgian YouTube channel.
In the minute-long clip – which starts with a parodically bombastic title sequence, not unlike a news programme – a member of the group, speaking French and wearing the iconic Guy Fawkes mask, declares war on Islamic extremists.
Addressing terrorists directly, the person warns: “We will track you down to the last one and we will kill you. You allowed yourselves to kill innocent people, therefore we will avenge their deaths.”
“We will track all of your activities online. We will close your accounts on all social networks.”
“You will not impose your sharia in our democracies… Be afraid of us. Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, you will get our vengeance.”
The ‘Operation Charlie Hebdo’ (OCH) campaign was launched immediately, replete with its own hashtag and Twitter handle to keep followers updated. It was through this medium that the group announced its opening salvo.
On 10 January, a tweet read: ‘#TangoDown: ansar-alhaqq.net…’ The first website to be targeted – presumably because it is French-language – contained a forum that was a known haunt for radicalists. It remains offline at the time of writing.
Over the next few days, OCH asked its members, also known as Anons, to report suspected terrorism-related Twitter feeds. This resulted in a wave of account suspensions.
Website takedowns have also continued, including two in Qatar, whose leaders Anonymous accuse of funding terrorism.
The hackers’ crosshairs are now trained on Turkey, after its government blocked websites that published the Charlie Hebdo cover featuring a cartoon of Prophet Mohammed.
These actions have a lot of public support, especially with tensions running high after the killings in France, but will Anonymous’ heightened involvement in the war on terror really be a good thing?
The group initially rose to prominence when it directed DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks on corporations such as Sony, Paypal and Visa. It also hit religious and political organisations.
Targets are chosen when they are perceived to oppose the values of Anonymous, which can be loosely defined as freedom of expression and transparent democracy. It’s for this reason that Anons are often described as ‘hacktivists’. To supporters, they are freedom fighters. Critics, though, view them as cyber terrorists and point to the group’s beginnings on anarchic website 4chan.
While it’s true that Anonymous didn’t have the most auspicious of starts – members have been involved in questionable hacks that exposed the personal details of innocent people, and associating with racists and their ilk on 4chan didn’t help its image – but the group today is a very different beast.
The darker branches have broken off to form splinter cells, and the remaining trunk has grown into a force with more positive objectives. It won respect for its involvement in the Occupy movement, and Guy Fawkes masks are a common sight at anti-establishment protests throughout Europe. Most poignantly, Anons helped pro-democracy demonstrators in the Middle East by setting up encrypted channels of communication for those who feared that dissidence would cost them their lives.
But engaging in protests and under-the-hood activism is very different to entering into what is effectively cyber warfare. For all Anonymous’ good intentions, OCH is now impinging on the domain of intelligence services, and this could be a dangerous step.
If the group is seen to be acting against the interests of counter-terrorism operations, it could jeopardise the reputation that it has worked hard to turn around.
The hive mind of Anonymous is a source of pride. The collective has a fluid structure – someone touts an idea, and if it’s popular the swarm gravitates towards it. But this spontaneity can lead to unforeseen consequences. There is no accountability, so it wouldn’t take much for an ill-thought-out plan to go awry. Leaking the wrong information; accusing innocent people; compromising a military operation; these are all examples of what could happen as a result of OCH.
Anonymous has no shortage of opponents in international politics, particularly those on the conservative side – as you can imagine, liberal anti-capitalists calling for political transparency are not darlings of the right. More importantly, it means any mistake, any whiff of wrongdoing, and Anonymous will be pounced on faster than you can say ‘Wikileaks’.
Already, a set of pro-Palestinian Islamic hackers, known as AnonGhost, has reacted to OCH by bringing down several French websites. Even more worrying is another group that posted the Islamic State flag on a number of domains, along with the words: ‘Death to France. Death to Charlie.’
Critics will begin to ask if Anonymous is right to provoke these sorts of reactions – is it fanning the flames of radicalism rather than stamping them out? – and partisan media organisations like Fox News, which the group has previously targeted, will ram home that point to the public.
So why is Anonymous risking all the progress it has made in recent times? If Edward Snowden’s leaks taught us anything, it’s that the security services have a surfeit of measures to combat terrorism. In fact, online communication is one of the key sources of information in investigating potential threats. Intelligence operatives won’t be happy if any of their leads go cold because of OCH. Important Anons are already behind bars for messing with the CIA and the group could do without further arrests.
There’s also an argument that OCH is slightly hypocritical. In the United Kingdom, people are allowed to hold radical views. It is when those views amount to inciting hatred that they cross the line into illegality. Anonymous are vehement defenders of freedom of speech, but OCH is shutting down Islamic websites and forums – is that not censorship of a kind?
Ultimately, Anonymous can be a tremendous force for good, particularly at a time when governments and corporations infringe more and more on the privacy and power of ordinary citizens. But the hacktivists’ long-term effectiveness relies on public support. OCH is a risky exercise that could easily backfire and gift ammunition to its critics.
If Anonymous is serious about fighting terrorism, perhaps it could attempt to open lines of communication with security services. If members see anything untoward online, they could report it to those better placed to use the information. This would be a mature and popular approach.
It is understandable that anger and frustration over recent events has lead to the group’s aggressive tactics. To ‘act’ is an intrinsic part of activism. But sometimes there is a more sensible way of furthering a cause.
In the case of cyber warfare, Anons are better off being vigilant than vigilantes.