Counterterrorism or Vigilantism? The Cyber War Between ISIS and Anonymous

Amy Thomas


On November 15, 2015, two days after the Paris attacks that killed and wounded hundreds, the cyber hacking group Anonymous declared war on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the militant group that claimed responsibility for the attacks. Within a week, Anonymous had taken down 20,000 ISIS-related Twitter accounts. It also accused Internet service providers that host ISIS websites of collaborating with the militant organization. In response, ISIS warned that they “will respond to the threat” and published advice on how to counteract hacking attacks by Anonymous. Since 2011, when Anonymous declared war on the United States government, the group has had a less than amiable relationship with US intelligence and security agencies. By 2013, US authorities had arrested many key members of the group; but Anonymous continued to launch cyber attacks against government servers, defacing federal websites and releasing the private information of government officials. Given the adversarial relationship between the US and Anonymous, what are the ramifications for US national security of Anonymous declaring war on ISIS? Could this development potentially provide the US with an advantage in the broader war against ISIS? To answer this question, this paper will examine the Anonymous-ISIS war under the prism of two disciplines, Counterterrorism and Information Assurance. It will argue that, regardless of its outcome, the cyber war between Anonymous and ISIS is detrimental to US concerns. This unfolding confrontation between two non-state actors with a history of criminal activity is unlikely to follow conventional counterterrorism guidelines. Despite the shared goal of the US and Anonymous to destroy ISIS, Anonymous is employing vigilante tactics that undermine the international system of law and order. Such vigilantism, even if successful, can be expected to subvert the principles of information assurance, on which the very idea of cyber security is based.

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