Cyberwar (2016) s01e10 Episode Script

Anonymous vs. ISIS

1 BEN: A series of terrorist attacks by the Islamic State.
Hacktivists fight back VOICE: ISIS, you will be treated like a virus, and we are the cure.
BEN: and ally themselves with governments.
Individuals passing information to the US government is a longstanding practice.
But is the war on ISIS causing a war within Anonymous? (Yelling) For more than two years, the so-called Islamic State has been waging war in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS members and fanboys on Twitter and YouTube spread propaganda (Speaking foreign language) while others deface websites and penetrate networks for intel.
One IS hacker and British expat named Junaid Hussain was such a threat, the CIA placed him 3 on its kill list before a drone strike in Syria eventually killed him in 2015.
I first reported on Anonymous' anti-ISIS campaign in the summer of 2014, but after the Paris attacks a year later, the hacktivist collective issued a declaration.
Members of Anonymous had been taking down Islamic State websites, flagging Twitter accounts for removal, hacking targets, and of course generally just trolling ISIS.
But some members are actively collaborating with governments, and that tactic has caused a major rift in the collective.
It also raises questions about the thin line governments are walking when it comes to cooperation with online vigilantes.
I'm at Speaker's Corner in London to meet Nafees Hamid, an expert on terrorism and Islamic radicalization.
Speaker's Corner has this history of freedom of speech.
People can get up there on their soap box and basically talk about whatever they want to.
Including people who support ISIS? Yeah, they can't say they support ISIS, but they can basically support all the goals of ISIS.
They can support the Caliphate, they can reject democracy.
Nafees is a researcher who focuses on the psychology of terrorism, and he's interviewed dozens of ISIS sympathizers and fighters across Europe.
I wanted to better understand the effectiveness of the Islamic State's online operations.
So let's talk about recruitment, but specifically social media.
So how does something like a YouTube video influence some kid who's in Birmingham to pick up and head to the Islamic Caliphate? Usually when someone goes online, goes on Twitter, and let's say make an effort to reach out to someone who's either an ISIS supporter, an active member of ISIS, they follow them or they tweet them or something, and in a very short amount of time they're just all of a sudden surrounded by all these supporters.
Like sometimes thousands of people in a matter of hours will just start following a particular individual who just posted a video or made contact with someone in the group.
And then you just wanna inundate that person's Twitter wall with all sorts of videos of what's going on in Syria.
And then in the midst of all of that horror that they're seeing coming from the Shia militias, from the regimes, from the impotence of Western countries to step in, then they'll see an ISIS propaganda video that shows an Iraqi soldier being beheaded or killed.
And that kind of gives them some kind of catharsis.
That gives them a feeling of revenge.
It makes them seem like heroes.
(Yelling) And it used to be pretty easy to reach out online and contact bonafide ISIS operators in Iraq or Syria.
In fact, my chats with one alleged IS operative from Canada landed me in court.
The Canadian feds wanted me to fork over all of my communications with Farrah Mohammed Shirdan.
(Speaking foreign language) That case is ongoing, and I'm still facing the threat of jail time.
These ISIS operatives, I mean, for a little while, they weren't that hard to find either.
They're just like a Twitter link away really, and they would even attach their you know, whether it was Kik or a different encrypted chat network name.
And then you'd just download the app, contact them.
Exactly, yeah, it was super easy to talk to them.
It was kind of out in the open.
I think from an intelligence agency point of view, this probably served some purpose because you could monitor some of this stuff.
It might be a bit harder now to contact members of ISIS online, but a few years ago when they were still out in the open, the US government decided to fight fire with shoddy social media fire.
We noticed that in 2013, there was an increase in terrorist propaganda in English.
And no one in the world, not just the US, had ever done anything to try to address this.
Alberto Fernandez was a US diplomat for more than three decades.
A fluent Arabic speaker, he led the State Department's program to counteract ISIS messaging online.
His group produced anti-ISIS videos in many languages.
I remember being baffled when their English language campaign known as Think Again Turn Away launched online in 2013.
Why don't you tell me about Think Again Turn Away? Think Again Turn Away was basically a kind of cheap, zero budget effort to address the rise of ISIS propaganda in foreign languages, including English.
(Audience gasping) What the are you doing? (Audience laughing) The State Department has genuinely created a sarcastic parody recruitment video for ISIS that begins with the words, "Run, do not walk to ISIS Land.
" And you are banking a lot on any potential militants understanding that that is sarcasm.
Oh, you know what? I was just about to join ISIS, but then I saw your very clever video! The criticism that people have had is ridiculous, that somehow trolling with these people brings us down to their level.
To some way it does.
Well, the problem with this is that they've had free reign for years, where nobody said a thing.
How did that work out? What do you think about Anonymous and their operations against these accounts? Certainly the idea of having more entities going after the adversary's material is a good thing.
That's what ISIS has, right? ISIS has ISIS people doing stuff, and then it has fanboys.
All over the world.
You need a network to fight a network.
You need a swarm to fight a swarm.
And Anonymous is part of that swarm? It should be, yes.
BEN: I'm in Toronto to meet with an anti-ISIS activist who calls herself Sneaker.
She joined a group called GhostSec in 2015.
She basically combs the internet and dark web, collecting intel on ISIS, and assessing whether that information should be passed to the authorities.
Because Anonymous is such a loosely connected group, there are often divisions within the hacktivist collective.
And many Anons condemn GhostSec's collaboration with governments, but Sneaker sees herself as a member of both groups.
She was reluctant to talk to us at first, but finally agreed to meet if we promised not to reveal any of her personal details, and if she could wear that white mask you're seeing.
We just want to help as many people as we can.
What motivates you every day to get up and what, you just wanna hunt terrorists? Every attack that we've had, whether it's Paris or Belgium or, you know, one of the US attacks - San Bernadino - and not only the deaths, but you know, they're enslaving little girls, the way they treat people in the Caliphate including children, is what does it.
I mean, we have to do something.
So GhostSec is working with the FBI and the US government? - Well, not - And also with Anonymous? Well, we are Anonymous.
Yeah, we're part of Anonymous, but we don't have a formal arrangement.
We simply send them the intel, like any citizen, you know, who's thought something's suspicious, and they might call.
So that's all we're doing.
How do you feel about some people in Anonymous who think you guys are just being rats to the government? You know, if we come across something that's going to thwart an attack, save somebody's life, you want us to just sit on the information and not share it with the government? I mean, it doesn't make any sense.
The government just isn't able to do as much as they should, so we're just helping out.
And you do think you are doing something they can't do? We know that for a fact.
So how do anti-ISIS activists get their information to the authorities? Michael Smith is a counter-terrorism advisor to Congress.
He once acted as the middle man between Sneaker's group and the government.
But infighting within GhostSec led to another split, and now Smith only deals with the newest faction, known as Ghost Security Group, which confusingly sounds a lot like the original group's name.
They reached out to me because they were interested in finding somebody who might be able to determine whether or not some of the information that they were collecting could be utilized for counter-terrorism operational purposes.
And honestly, I thought well, okay, let's just see what it is that they're picking up on.
I knew that they were touting that they were instrumental in closing tens of thousands of Islamic State-managed accounts on Twitter and elsewhere in social media.
And very quickly they demonstrated that they were drilling down into these networks in ways that were helping to gather information about recruitment programs, and in some cases even attack plots in various places in the world.
A notable example of that was a plot to strike in Tunisia around the 4th of July last year.
Tunisia, but has it only been Tunisia? And was that plot actually stopped? Well, the plot was stopped, certainly.
I received some indication that the information was useful in helping to identify a cell and some planned activity there.
There have been other examples, but I can't really get into the specifics of that.
So wait, you get this information, okay, and then who do you pass it to? Do you have a speed dial for the FBI? Well, I know people in different agencies and have points of contact.
And historically I would look at the information and say alright, based on let's say Tunisia, where is that going to be most appropriate in terms of the flow of information? Ghost Security, are they doing things that the government can't, that the NSA can't? 'Cause they'll claim they are.
You're having trouble with that one.
(Laughing) Well, what's different with Ghost Security Group is that they're not answering to masters in government.
They can go out and do things that perhaps would require a lot more time and energy just to develop approvals and policies and even just basic protocols for various agencies to pursue that type of activity.
So that's a great little situation if you're the US government.
You can let some guys go off, or hackers, and pretty much do what they want unchained, and then also get the intelligence from it.
Well, I guess in theory.
Strange bedfellows, is what I'm saying.
BEN: In 2015, Anonymous declared war on ISIS.
The collective and various subgroups have since taken down ISIS websites and flagged Twitter accounts for removal.
Some have even shared intel with the US government.
But many Anonymous members think that these tactics violate the collective's core beliefs.
Discordian is one of Anonymous' most influential voices.
He's an OG Anon, and the brains behind some of the group's most iconic videos.
He skyped me from somewhere in Europe.
You joined in 2010, and you were around in 2011, which was really the heyday.
What did Anonymous mean then? Now Anonymous is kind of almost working with the government.
Some of their sects are feeding things to the government.
So I know obviously you don't like this operation against ISIS, but can you describe to me how deep the division really is within Anonymous? But I mean, if I can play devil's advocate, is it really so bad that Anonymous is going after a group that mass beheads individuals, uses sex slaves? Should ISIS even be censored at all? A lot of US officials talk about the battle for hearts and minds when it comes to counter-terrorism.
Well, General David Petraeus was one of the chief architects of that exact strategy.
A military legend with a scandalous fall, he was commander of the surge in Iraq, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, and then the director of the CIA.
Cyberspace, the internet, this is a new battle space.
You know, we had ground and then sea and air and sub-sea and space, and now you have cyberspace.
And increasingly, there are battles being fought there.
These are battles of ideas, and they have to be joined.
Anons like Discordian believe that governments working with Anonymous are actively infiltrating the hacktivist group.
General Petraeus doesn't talk much about the CIA and Anonymous publically, but he agreed to meet me at his Manhattan office to discuss this online war.
And I wasn't exactly expecting him to be candid.
There are people who've said that there's been a lot of infiltration of a group like Anonymous 'cause it's so open, anyone can just join.
Was there a perspective in the US intelligence community that going after a group like Anonymous and getting inside of it was a possibility? Obviously not something I would ever discuss, but nice try.
(Laughing) What do you think about something like Anonymous going after ISIS online, and then passing information to the US government? Well, individuals passing information to the US government is a longstanding practice.
This is why we have tip lines.
But we have to be very, very careful, because just as we did not allow vigilantism or illegal activity on the ground when we partnered with individuals who used to either tacitly or even actively oppose us, you can't allow certain activities in cyberspace.
You certainly can't promote them, even just because they may be aligned with our interests or our objectives.
So they have to be used very, very carefully, I think, if they are used at all.
And I think that the law enforcement organizations and the intelligence agencies have been very careful, in fact, in their relationships with such groups.
Some people within Anonymous that we've spoken to say that the US government isn't doing enough, and it forced them to intervene.
Do you think that that's true? I don't think you'd find an argument in the US government about whether or not more should be done.
There are always limits, however.
There's never been a general who had enough troops, enough funding, enough bandwidth, now enough unmanned aerial vehicles, and the same is true when it comes to cyberspace.
BEN: The online battle between ISIS and Anonymous has created unusual alliances and deep divisions within the hacktivist collective.
Some Anons believe collaborating with governments is snitching, but others are willing to do whatever it takes to fight the terror group.
Mikro initially joined Anonymous to fight ISIS, and then he started his own group called CtrlSec.
He devised a way to crowdsource the reporting of suspected ISIS accounts to Twitter en masse so the company can pull them down.
Are you saving lives, do you think? So in Tunisia, when you knew the attack was coming, what did you do with the intelligence? What was that moment like? What do you think of people who say that CtrlSec or Anonymous fighting ISIS this way, you're kind of aligning with the military industrial complex and the goals of the US government? So how far is Anonymous straying from its basic principles in its fight against ISIS? A hacker since his teenage years, Gregg Housh was part of a notorious software piracy ring until he was busted by the FBI.
After a stint in federal prison, he became one of the original members of Anonymous.
He's so old school, he was in Anon before the Guy Fawkes mask was even a thing.
ISIS are a natural enemy of what Anonymous stands for.
- And everybody else.
- If it stands for anything.
You know, freedom is a big piece of it.
Anti-censorship is another big piece of it.
You know, at the same time, what about that government collaboration? 'Cause you're a guy who was a black hat hacker in the criminal world, ran away from the FBI for a while, and now the thing that you helped found is now collaborating with the very enemy that you once had.
A lot of Anons don't agree with working with the government at all on this.
You know, write it up to them being right, which I think: write it up to them being mad about all their friends who are in jail.
I mean, you're a collaborator at that point.
Yeah, at that point you're a collaborator with someone who has shown themselves to be, you know, mostly the enemy to people like you.
But just because Gregg opposes collaboration with the government, it doesn't mean he opposes the direct confrontation with ISIS.
So if you look at the stuff that CtrlSec is doing, GhostSec, Op Ice ISIS, what does it all mean in the end? Is it actually achieving anything? So this is a question I get asked a lot, "What do you hope to achieve? What in the grand scheme of things did this do?" Maybe there would've been more attacks in other countries, 'cause you know, the recruiters online that were shut down by Anonymous would have reached people that were ready and willing, if they had only been talked to.
If one bomb didn't go off because of what Anonymous did, then victory.
But the other angle is the continuing activation of young people.
When you see acts like this, you see the world is currently in a terrible state.
There's a lot that needs to get done, and you don't have to have 12 years of college and be a senator.
You don't have to be someone in a position of power.
You can be sitting at home and affecting the world.
Anonymous is challenging the online operations of one of the most prolific terrorist organizations on Earth, trying to do real damage.
The campaign has raised questions about how the government cooperates with online vigilantes.
But whether or not its operations are doing anything to stop ISIS, the campaign has definitely taken its toll on Anonymous itself.
And some members are asking if the collective will ever be the same again.