Unlikely Allies: Anonymous Hactivists & The US Government Join Forces Against ISIS

E.T. Brooking’s wrote for Foreign Policy what Ghost Security Group executive director, DigitalShadow, calls “a very accurate reflection of our operations against extremism.”

In that article, the author details the Alice In Wonderland world in which hacktivists team up with national law enforcement agencies against the Islamic State.

It’s counter-intuitive, but it is so. Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. One such hacktivist compiled a database of 26,000 Islamic State-affiliated Twitter accounts and even built a website to host the list so anybody could see it. The hacktivist, who goes by the pseudonym “XRSone,” essentially became the de-facto spokesman for #OpISIS.

A decentralized group of volunteers, coders and trolls have stepped into an online battle against the Islamic State and its online sympathizers. In large part, this contingent is sympathetic to Anonymous, but remains a diverse group from all over the world.

2015 has been the year in which hacktivists announced themselves in the war against IS, having dismantled some 149 Islamic State-linked websites and flagging approximately 101,000 Twitter accounts and nearly 6,000 propaganda videos.

Many anti-Islamic State hackers have disassociated from Anonymous. Still, #OpISIS and Anonymous share various members, with “the same motifs and the same tactics.” Many joined the fight against the Islamic State after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, which took 12 lives,  and a massacre at a jewish market, which took 4 lives.  

IS supporters are estimated to have used between 46,000 to 70,000 Twitter accounts from September to December 2014. In his article,  Brookings describes one of the earliest #OpISIS hacktivists.

…a self-described ‘dyed-in-the-wool American,’ going by the handle @MadSci3nti5t. Armed with Google Translate and an extraordinarily profane list of insults, he took to hijacking popular Islamic State hashtags, reporting Islamic State fighters, and trolling them with a mix of jingoistic jeers and aggressively offensive digitally altered photos.

Brookings highlights one of @MadSci3nti5t’s insults: “isis hates rock and roll…and butts. think of them like your over-religious conservative family member that gets offended if u say ‘ass’ at a family gathering.”

Twitter ultimately cracked down on the Islamic State, suspending 10,000 Islamic State-linked accounts on April 2, 2015. However, some hacktivists have determined the Islamic State is using contractors and volunteers many degrees removed from the IS front lines, possibly not even in Iraq and Syria.

“Last summer you could log on and talk to [mujahideen].… i was interested in the syria conflict [and had] been following it for years on twitter. theyre all gone now. now its just media people,” @MadSci3nti5t says of the current IS social media landscape.  

Members of Ghost Security Group, known as “GhostSec,” claim to receive nearly 500 tips per day. Early on, hacktivists apparently used to send tips to random government email addresses.

Over time, they cultivated ties with third parties from the defense industry to get the information to the right hands. According to Michael Smith, one such intermediary, he forwards 90 percent of GhostSec’s discoveries to those in a position to act upon them. The group’s members are big proponents of free speech on the internet, but don’t consider IS calls for violence as protected.

DigitaShadow, Ghost Security Group Executive Director, sat down with me to discuss the recent Paris Attacks and their implications.

Thank you for answering my questions.

DS: My pleasure, thank you.

How have the recent Paris Attacks set a new precedent?

DS: This week’s attacks in Paris, France have been the worst since the 9/11 attacks in NYC and Washington, D.C. and  serve as a grim reminder that the war on terrorism is far from over and will continue to escalate and manifest itself for years to come. However, with groups like ourselves and governments willing to assist I am confident that we will overcome this through determination and resolve. Our way of life cannot and will not be hindered by groups such as the Islamic State and we will persevere.

An early “expert” on CNN suspected PGP and dark net use in coordinating the attacks. Did you see this? Is GSG’s read similar?

DS: Preliminary reports now suggest that the jihadists held responsible for this deplorable attack on France and her people were communicated over the PlayStation network using PlayStation 4’s. Ghost Security Group was able to detect and react to some chatter in regards to the attack however the attack planning details were carried out intensively on the PSN per preliminary reports.

That national governments (particularly their law enforcement agencies) and groups such as The Ghost Security Group have many common interests – namely in stopping violence against “civilians” – has major unknown implications in my opinion.

Do you believe this as well? Could it foster understanding between once disparate or in part at-odds groups?

I cannot speak for other groups or organizations combatting ISIS. However, I can inform you that we are coordinating our efforts with the United States government to detect attacks before they happen, as well as slow [IS] recruiting, destroy online propaganda and reduce the number of enemy combatants on the battlefield and to date have met with great success.

Do you believe the bombing of Syria in order to atone for attacks is an efficient model for handling the scourge of soft target warfare in the west?

DS: Ultimately airstrikes alone will not defeat the Islamic State in my opinion. It will require ground forces to be deployed to cripple them entirely in conjunction with airstrikes and digital warfare.

How can normal non-hacker oriented web users join the fight against ISIS?

DS: Anyone can help by reporting suspected extremist social media accounts, threats or websites to us at ReportOnlineTerrorism.com. We monitor our tip line 24/7 and all information submitted is reviewed.

Have there been big bitcoin movements in ISIS-affiliated wallets in recent months that stand out?

DS: We have uncovered several Bitcoin wallets suspected linked to the Islamic State one in which was traced to a BTC wallet containing over 3 million dollars in the cryptocurrency.

Thank you for answering some questions.

DS: Thank you.