One of the key issues the West has had to face in countering Islamic State (IS) is the jihadi group’s mastery of online propaganda, seen in hundreds of thousands of messages celebrating the atrocities against civilians and spreading the message of radicalisation. It seems clear that efforts to counter Islamic State online are missing the mark.
A US internal State Department assessment noted in June 2015 how the violent narrative of Islamic State had “trumped” the efforts of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations.
Meanwhile in Europe, Interpol was to track and take down social media accounts linked to Islamic State, as if that would solve the problem – when in fact doing so meant potentially missing out on intelligence gathering opportunities.
Into this vacuum has stepped Anonymous, a fragmented loose network of hacktivists that has for years launched occasional cyberattacks against government, corporate and civil society organisations. The group announced its intention to take on Islamic State and its propaganda online, using its networks to crowdsource the identity of Islamic State-linked accounts. Under the banner of #OpIsis and #OpParis, Anonymous published lists of thousands of Twitter accounts claimed to belong to Islamic State members or sympathisers, claiming more than 5 500 had been removed.
The group pursued a similar approach following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015, with @OpCharlieHebdo taking down more than 200 jihadist Twitter acounts, bringing down the website Ansar-Alhaqq.net and publishing a list of 25,000 accounts alongside a guide on how to locate pro-Islamic State material online.
Duking it out online
It is fitting that Anonymous has become the antidote to counter Islamic State propaganda and online activity. The two organisations are ideological opposites, but with a common form of organisation: loose networks stacked up against hierarchical structures. Anonymous adopts an open, fluid and horizontal approach most of the time, incorporating activists and sympathisers in many guises across many digital platforms. It can only really be pinned down through the nature of the activities claimed by groups and individuals going under the Anonymous name.
In contrast, Islamic State is a network that relies superficially on religion to create an imagined community of believers. Its ideology differentiates – not by nationality or ethnicity – but by religious affiliation and zeal, relying largely on Wahabbist tenets to fill out all the missing political and existential gaps.
Anonymous has been prosecuted for cyber attacks in many countries under cybercrime laws, as their activities are not seen as legitimate protest. It is worth mentioning the ethical debate around hacktivism, as some see cyber attacks that take down accounts or websites as infringing on others’ freedom of expression, while others argue that hacktivism should instead create technologies to circumvent censorship, enable digital equality and open access to information.
In striving to tackle networks such as Islamic State, Anonymous takes the position that it is fighting against those who coordinate or commit crimes against humanity (“We will unite humanity” the Anonymous video following the Paris attacks promises viewers). Its ideology therefore seeks to be inclusive and reflect a common humanity, which embraces open, fluid identities that are not restricted to nationality, religion or ethnicity.
A war of ideologies
It is this collective stand against hierarchies of race, gender, class, nationality and religion which allows Anonymous to inspire others. The group has been accused of having roots in misogynistic internet culture and of naive techno-utopianism. Nevertheless, through its fragmented and multifaceted actions the collective seems to aspire to so much more: striving on behalf of humanity against what it sees as oppressive neoliberal ideologies, repressive authoritarian regimes – and any attempts to stifle open debate and freedom of information.
So Anonymous is the opposite side of the coin to Islamic State, where it is not just the network that is decentralised, but the ideology too. For IS, the narrative is tied exclusively to one view of life, one ethical standpoint based on reactive emotions with a desire to bring that world violently, or die trying.
In some respects, Anonymous is the perfect online vigilante nemesis to IS because of the failure of established states to organise any effective counter. Nevertheless, reports that the addresses of IS recruiters were posted online in the aftermath of the Paris attacks pose significant ethical and human rights questions. Is it reasonable to expect that any online counter-propaganda coalition against Islamic State could collaborate with Anonymous as a legitimate part of civil society, despite persistent persecution of Anonymous by governments in the past?
While cooperation between controversial non-state groups and governments is not unprecedented, in the case of Anonymous it would be hard to achieve. Hierarchical organisations struggle to work with decentralised networks such as Anonymous. Yet it is Anonymous – and not those nation states – that has managed to capture and channel the fight against Islamic State in the digital realm – and looks set to continue to do so.