The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How will ‘Anonymous’ wage war on the Islamic State? One of its own tells us.

Anonymous will launch more cyber attacks on the Islamic State, following the carnage in Paris last week, the hackers collective said in a video posted online. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Anonymous, the hacker collective known for Guy Fawkes masks and controversial activism, declared war on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, following the Nov. 13 attacks on Paris.

But what does that even mean? How can a bunch of computer nerds fight an international terrorist group?

[What you need to know about Anonymous’s ‘war’ on the Islamic State]

The Fix put those questions and more to Gregg Housh, one of the most prominent — and one of the only publicly identified — members of Anonymous. Housh is semi-retired from hacking these days. In August, he launched Rebel News, a Massachusetts-based Web site that covers the intersection of hacking and activism (a.k.a. hacktivism). He hangs out in the same corners of the Internet where he helped hatch hacking campaigns like Project Chanology, which targeted the Church of Scientology, but says he is now an observer and not a participant.

Housh has already been to prison, after all, and he doesn’t want to go back.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

THE FIX: How is Anonymous waging a war against the Islamic State and how effective can it be? We know they rely heavily on social media.

HOUSH: Everyone loves to say “hacking,” but what Anonymous is doing is just tons of research, identifying and monitoring everything out there that ISIS might use to communicate and recruit, and trying to get those channels shut down, be it Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, telegram channels. They’re just trying to shut down their ability to talk to the public. I think it’s had a decent effect.

One of the things I like about this is anyone can take part. You don’t really have to have any hacking skills, and you don’t have to break the law to do something here. Just find ISIS talking online and then tell someone about it. And the best part about it is ISIS is trying to have a good social presence and trying to recruit, so it’s not like they’re hiding.

But one of the problems is someone closely affiliated with what Anonymous used to do, Junaid [Hussain], kind of taught ISIS everything they know. So both sides have the same toolbox.

THE FIX: Hussain was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Syria in August. Can you mourn the friend you once had while also being happy that the guy he became is dead?

HOUSH: Yeah, that’s pretty much it, exactly. It’s a guy you know, you’ve hung out with. But at the same time, he turned pure evil. Finding out that Junaid went down that path really hit me hard. I just couldn’t believe one of our own was doing that.

THE FIX: Is the involvement of a former Anonymous hacker indicative of how sophisticated the Islamic State operation is?

HOUSH: They definitely got a lot of their skill set brought to them by someone who knew what he was doing.

THE FIX: If you report ISIS accounts, and social media companies shut them down, won’t they just open others?

HOUSH: Do you know how hard it is to get followers on Twitter? They keep having to reintroduce new accounts. I think shutting down their channels to talk to impressionable youth around the world is a smart move. It definitely creates more work for them. If just a few kids don’t get caught up, I’d be happy.