November 13th 2015, Paris, France: 130 civilians were killed in a series of organized attacks carried out by the Islamic State. Shortly after, The “Hacktivist–Cyber-Insurgency” group Anonymous announced that it had “declared war” on ISIS, and planned to combat the terrorist group in an arena that has become omnipresent in the digital society of today – the Internet and social media. On the surface, the announcement of a group such as Anonymous to counteract an organization such as ISIS would not be taken seriously, especially considering that the most powerful nations of the world (The U.S, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, etc.,) have not to date been able to bring the extremist group to heel. Yet, ISIS has from the start shown themselves to be an entirely new generation of terrorist group. Indeed, president Obama has characterized ISIS as being “A group of killers with good social media skills.” The United States has recognized the importance of countering ISIS in the arena of Social media, forming a unique cell within the state department solely for that mission. However, Obama has noted that on this account, the American efforts have fallen short. Keeping in mind that sometimes history has shown that it can take an insurgency to defeat an insurgency (for instance the example of the Sunni Awakening in western Iraq to defeat Al-Qaeda,) perhaps one should give the Anonymous threat more credence.
Mao Zedong famously said, “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” While Mao was referring to the guerrilla efforts in relationship to a physical presence among civilians, in this modern age the same principal can be applied to spreading and gaining support for an ideology using digital media. ISIS has proven to be able to effectively exploit social media outlets to spread its ideology and further its recruiting efforts among civilians. Government efforts to thwart this, known as counter-messaging have proven ineffective, primarily because they are reactive in nature as opposed to being pro-active, always trying to catch up, and back peddle what ISIS has already done. It is difficult to counter a message when that message is already in place. Whether Anonymous can prove to be more effective than governments at countering ISIS seems to rest on three issues. First in denying ISIS access to certain sites, and second to undermining community confidence in the credibility of the ISIS cause, and third in super imposing a competing ideology over that lauded by ISIS.
On the first there is no doubt that Anonymous has the skill set necessary to disrupt the physical access to social media sites by ISIS and its affiliates, Anonymous has proven its ability to hack into heavily secured government and commercial sites, and is very effective at breaking the very kinds of encryption that ISIS utilizes on the internet for secure communication. Anonymous specializes in DDoS, or distributed denial of service attacks, in other words flooding a site with information requests so that it crashes.
On the second- Anonymous has shown themselves to be capable of accessing, through malicious hacking and viruses, private and protected information that could prove potentially damaging (for instance, the hack into Ashley Madison.) While governments possess similar technical capabilities, these are often constrained by legal restrictions that anonymous does not adhere to.
On the third- Anonymous’ main ideology is that which supports anarchy-based freedom, which is not inherently compatible with the kind of moderate Muslim ideology most people believe is necessary to counter the fundamentalism of ISIS. In order for Anonymous to succeed on this front, they would need to make common cause with a group, moderate Muslims, (to quote president Obama in his speech on defeating ISIS.) On the surface, such an alliance is unlikely. However, if Anonymous proves itself to be capable in disrupting and undermining ISIS in the digital arena, their credibility with moderate Muslims might increase to the point that they could make common cause in countering the extremist ideology of ISIS, especially given the fact that Anonymous is well positioned to demonstrate through the vehicle of social media the horrific realities of ISIS and its ideology, negating recruitment techniques through that media.
Will Anonymous succeed? Only time will tell. However, harkening back to Mao’s words, Anonymous has arguably more in common with the ‘ocean’ of the Internet than the governments of the United States and other world powers who are trying to counter ISIS.