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Anonymous declares ‘war’ on ISIS. Here’s why it matters

The hacker collective aims to fight fire with fire.

Here’s an interesting new twist on the old notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. 

In the wake of last week’s terror attacks in Paris, it’s not only the French government that says it is now at war with the Islamic State. So is the hacker group Anonymous.

As this Christian Science Monitor report by Molly Jackson details, a number of videos from Anonymous-related accounts appeared on line in recent days. Speaking French, Italian or English, people wearing the group’s characteristic Guy Fawkes mask declared they were escalating a campaign they started last year against the extremist movement. 

“War is unleashed,” one said. “Prepare yourself.” 

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Anonymous said it was “defending our values and our freedom.”

Doesn’t that sound like something you’d be more likely to hear from a politician?

As a first step, Anonymous revealed late Sunday a list of what it said was about a thousand Twitter accounts linked to the Islamic State. 

It’s unclear, of course, how important this new declaration of war will turn out to be. By all accounts, Anonymous is a loose association of hackers rather than the kind of disciplined wrecking crew that could do permanent damage to the Islamic State’s web operations. But it sure is interesting.

The irony is that this declaration comes from a movement better known for supporting the likes of Edward Snowden, and hacking web sites as punishment for what it regards as government over-reach. In this conflict, though, it appears to find itself more aligned with governments against a violent and backward-looking ideology.

For its own reasons, Anonymous aims to fight fire with fire.

And while it won’t defeat the Islamic State, it could cause problems, including disruptions of recruiting activities and interrupting internal communications for the extremists. The Islamic State depends heavily on a sophisticated Internet operation.

One of the things that makes the Islamic State different from previous extremist movements is the size and ambition of its web-based propaganda efforts and its ability to attract recruits via social media.

The Islamic State uses snappy production techniques to produce its videos, addresses potential recruits in their own vernacular, and holds up recruits (mostly young men) from Western countries as examples to attract similarly disaffected young people.

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Investigators on Monday were focusing on a Belgian supporter of the Islamic State, identified as Abdelhamid Abaaoud, as the possible mastermind of the Paris attack.

Such young people may be drawn to Syria or Iraq to fight for the Islamic State. They can be hard to trace if they return home, and Western governments fear that some are a risk to take part in the kind of attack that left nearly 130 people dead in Paris on Friday night.

The extremists have long engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with Western intelligence agencies that hunt its web sites and social media channels, and try to shut them down.

That’s not all Western governments are doing, of course. In addition to targeting influential individuals within the Islamic State movement, they are trying to squeeze its cash flow. 

On Monday, the U.S. claimed to have destroyed more than 100 trucks ferrying oil from territories controlled by the Islamic State in eastern Syria. Officials estimate that oil smuggling earns the militants more than a million dollars a day.

In a speech Monday, French President Francois Hollande vowed to destroy the Islamic State

Anonymous first declared that it was going after the Islamic State when it emerged last summer, and members have been focused – with more or less intensity – on the terror group ever since. 

After terror attacks in Paris in January, the group claimed it was responsible for shutting down an extremist website. Then, working with others, it revealed what it said were more than 9,000 social media sites linked to the Islamic State.

According to E.T. Brooking’s detailed account in Foreign Policy, Anonymous activists claim over time to have taken down about 150 websites associated with the Islamic State and flagged more than 100,000 Twitter accounts.