By Elise Viebeck - 02/12/15 06:00 AM EST
The global hacker collective known as Anonymous is storming the international political scene with a brash hacking campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The shadowy anarchist group, which is known for waging online attacks on everyone from the U.S. government to the Church of Scientology, is trying to dismantle the vast social media operation that helps ISIS recruit new followers.
“In an interesting way, they are set up as perfect nemeses,” said Gabriella Coleman, anthropologist and author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. “There are a lot of similarities in terms of how they use social media. It doesn’t surprise me that they would battle each other online.”
Anonymous first became a force online in 2003, when like-minded users of the website 4chan began staging pranks on social media networks. In 2008, its efforts turned to “hacktivism” when the Church of Scientology riled Internet users by trying to suppress a widely scorned promotional video for the religion that featured the actor Tom Cruise.
The subsequent hacking campaign against the church would be the first of many by Anonymous to gain support from Internet users opposed to censorship.
The group’s motto, “Expect us,” signaled that no offending company or organization would be safe from cyberattacks, and its logistical support for movements like the Arab Spring garnered praise.
But as Anonymous grew into a global movement, the group symbolized by the Guy Fawkes mask also became a cultural lightning rod, at times stirring controversy in Washington.
Anonymous appears to be firmly on the side of the United States when it comes to the conflict with ISIS, however.
The hacking group made headlines this week when it took to a public forum to post hundreds of social media accounts and websites that it claimed were affiliated with the jihadist group.
As of Wednesday, many of the ISIS sites remained inaccessible or disabled after members of Anonymous launched denial-of-service attacks, flooding the pages with traffic. Many of the Twitter accounts appeared to be suspended.
The attacks came the same day that hackers claiming affiliation with ISIS took over a variety of U.S. media feeds, including the Twitter account of Newsweek magazine.
During the 14 minutes that hackers were in control of the Newsweek account, they draped it in images of a masked man and posted a message threatening first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle ObamaOvernight Tech: Facebook's Sandberg comes to Washington | Senate faces new surveillance fight | Warren enters privacy debate Michelle Obama signs up for Snapchat Michelle Obama: 'It's time for us to come together' MORE. The message quickly grabbed attention online.
If authentic, the attack on Newsweek reaffirms ISIS’s taste for spectacle — something it shares with Anonymous — as well as its ability to harness the power of social media for attention.
“The thing to know about ISIS and social media is that they are old hands at this,” said William McCants, director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution.
“They were one of the first and most effective jihadist groups in getting their propaganda out through discussion boards. They’ve evolved along with social media, and have been doing this a long time.”
ISIS’s aggressive use of social media has been apparent to Web users bombarded almost weekly with reports and videos of vicious killings.
In a particularly sadistic example, ISIS recently posted video of a Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage.
Intelligence officials have used the terror group’s prominent online presence to track its activities, and some suspect U.S. spies have created fake jihadist websites to attract its members.
This has led some foreign policy experts to criticize Anonymous’s campaign on the grounds that it could hurt intelligence gathering. Others question the effectiveness of the hacks, because ISIS can easily revive Web activities under new accounts.
And yet the increasingly savage displays by ISIS have also brought a certain heroic quality to Anonymous’s efforts, even if the group is viewed as potentially dangerous.
The campaign against ISIS started last summer but intensified after the terrorist attack on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Jan. 7. With the hashtag “OpISIS,” Anonymous has claimed to have disabled thousands of sites with ISIS ties.
“This is something everyone can get behind,” Coleman said. “Certainly the general public can support cutting off [ISIS’s] propaganda wing. It might not wipe them out, but given how important that online presence is to ISIS, a momentary dent can mean a lot.”