My Day on the Front Lines of Anonymous’s ‘Massive’ War on ISIS

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As you may have heard, the loosely organized “hacktivist” group Anonymous “declared war” on ISIS over the weekend in a stagy, eye-catching video in which a masked man promises “massive cyberattacks.” Massive cyberattacks! How could I miss this? I embedded myself on the front lines.

The truth is, Anonymous has already been fighting the Islamic State online for over a year, in an “operation” it is calling #OpIsis. And “fighting” is maybe not the most accurate term. The conflict is mostly occurring on Twitter: ISIS is estimated to run tens of thousands of Twitter accounts as a recruitment tool; #OpIsis is an effort to get those accounts shut down as quickly as possible.

Nevertheless, what is, in effect, a public-minded anti-graffiti campaign has been covered in the kinds of awestruck terms usually reserved for Seal Team 6: “Anonymous Just Declared War on ISIS with a Massive Hack,” Mic.com declared in March after the group released a list of 9,200 Twitter accounts it claimed were linked to ISIS. To be clear: Anonymous is not hacking Twitter or Facebook in order to shut accounts down; they’re using readily available spam and abuse flagging tools built in to the social networks.

The declaration of war Mic covered in March has been followed up by an explicit declaration of war this weekend: an offshoot of #OpISIS called an offshoot #OpParis. The announcement was widely covered: “‘Anonymous’ Hackers Declare War on ISIS in Video Message,” NBC News reported. (You might wonder how many times Anonymous can declare war on ISIS before it stops getting coverage.)

The IRC channel on anonops.com saw a large influx of users over the weekend, mostly from new people who didn’t know where to start. IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, is a standardized protocol that internet users can set up themselves, rather than chatting over third-party services like Facebook or Slack; the IRC channel on anonops.com is a popular hub for members of anonymous, though far from the only one. I spent the day yesterday monitoring it.

What I saw was mostly stuff like this:

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Many members were not as poetic in their declarations of support:

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Some seemed confused:

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Others just wanted the gear:

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The answer to these questions always directed new users to a text file with primers on how to get started running python scripts to find ISIS presences on the web. (No word on where to buy the mask.) Another document tracked ISIS Twitter and Facebook accounts to report and get shut down.

If this was a “war,” it was remarkably clean and civic-minded. Overall — and maybe unsurprisingly — it felt like an extended orientation session for a volunteer group. Veteran Anonymous members would frequently emphasize that there was no hacking going on in the channel, which was freely accessible to law enforcement and writers like me.

Some expressed the internet’s most common exasperation:

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All IRC channels let the moderators set the topic of discussion. #OpParis’s included, in bold red text, “No DDOS/Defacing, just collect targets!” One of the comments alongside the document of targets stated in no uncertain terms that, “If you are here asking how to hack. You shouldn’t be on here.”

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The Anonymous war on terror isn’t quite as dramatic as its videos and the attendant coverage promise. No “massive cyber attacks,” just a lot of earnest people hoping to join up and help in whatever small way they could. But if the reporting is theatrical, my day in the chat made it understandable — the group has become a collective internet folk hero. Who wouldn’t want to help it take on ISIS?