In the aftermath of the devastating attack on Paris, France began asking its allies to support it in waging war against ISIS. The first to step forward and declare war against the Islamic State was one of the world’s smaller superpowers…Anonymous. That’s right, Anonymous. Speaking in French, a masked spokesperson for Anonymous solemnly warned ISIS that “Anonymous from all over the world will hunt you down.” While leaders from G20 nations assembled in Turkey managed to condemn the attack on Paris, and even authored a principled statement on economic hacking to demonstrate civilized nations have principles, Anonymous fired up its own version of a nuclear weapon.

Will it have an impact? Well, today Anonymous announced that it’s helped Twitter shut down over 5,000 pro-ISIS accounts, and it has leaked what it says is personal information about alleged ISIS members.  If this is the beginning of a sustained effort, it is likely it will seriously complicate ISIS’ online activities.  The Islamic State’s use of social media has been seen as a significant asset for the group, and a key contributor to their ability to attract new recruits, even though some cyber experts suggest that rather than shutting sites down the government would prefer to identify sites being used and monitor them to track specific individuals through their online activity. On this latter point is seems fair to question just how much value is being extracted when the target is a cyber savvy group.

Earlier this year, writing in Foreign Policy, E.T. Brooking lamented the United States government’s ability to counter the Islamic State’s vast social media propaganda efforts. He offered what seemed a novel suggestion, “If the United States is struggling to counter the Islamic State’s dispersed, rapidly regenerative online presence, why not turn to groups native to this digital habitat? Why not embrace the efforts of third-party hackers like Anonymous to dismantle the Islamic State — and even give them the resources to do so?”  Mr. Brooking may seem entirely prescient.  However unruly and misguided their efforts periodically may be, the hacktivists of Anonymous do seem to have a moral compass, and their view of the world is not likely to align with the brutal acts of ISIS. What we are now witnessing is a potential proof of concept of Mr. Brooking’s argument. If, with apologies to Clausewitz, war is the ultimate act of politics, then we may once again be treated to affirmation that politics makes strange bedfellows.

By Tom Davis, SDI Cyber Risk Practice

November 17, 2015