Not all hackers are evil. Nor is all hacking criminal. Indeed many hackers go about their work for righteous reasons. One example is the small group of Iraqi hackers who thought they could do better fighting ISIS online than most governments - and it looks like they were right.
The six individuals are sowing confusion and doubt in the heart of the ISIS virtual caliphate. Only time will tell if their efforts are merely an annoyance or actually have a lasting effect on the terrorist organization’s media campaign. The little group of hackers calls itself “Daeshgram” a name blending the acronym for ISIS in Arabic and Instagram.
The hackers are causing media mayhem in Iraq, right under ISIS’s noses. These aren’t trained operatives - one is a student and one an engineer, while the other four work in IT and cybersecurity. The digital band operates in secrecy; not even their families know of their activities. There's good reason for this - Daeshgram receives regular death threats from ISIS.
It's also unlikely they could appeal to the Iraqi government for help or protection. The hackers operate in a murky way without the government knowing what they are doing, much less sanctioning it. All the Iraqi government’s eggs have been put into one basket - military capability. Nothing is allocated for cyber-warfare and thus Daeshgram stands alone on that frontier.
Daeshgram’s efforts may play an important role in defeating the terrorist organization. ISIS’s grip in the region is loosening. Once occupied territory is being surrendered to the allied forces arrayed against it. However, its media efforts remain robust and that is what Daeshgram is seeking to challenge - through the use of fake news.
They hackers formed their group about a year ago to attack ISIS and disrupt its “virtual caliphate.” One of its members, using the pseudonym Nada, explains why,
“We started thinking about how we could fight them online. We were always messing around on the internet with each other anyway. ISIS are still a threat to Iraq, to Syria, even the world. So we started looking into exactly what might be effective on social media, and on Telegram. Back then, ISIS could do whatever they wanted on Telegram, we wanted them to know we were going to fight them on there too.”
Telegram as a Target
Daeshgram is showing some success. Telegram became ISIS's go-to medium after Twitter and Facebook began turning up the heat on its extremist material. Thus the hackers began infiltrating ISIS’s Telegram channels. Over many months, they observed and even pretended to be ISIS members. They took copious notes on their behaviour, language traits, particular tendencies, and predilections.
It was then time to begin their bedeviling of ISIS. What better way to arouse ire than to attack ISIS’s prurient bent? Pornography was bound to get its attention. They photoshopped a pornographic scene and made it appear to be a genuine release from the ISIS media apparatus. the sowing of doubt had begun.
However, the aim was to do more than just confuse ISIS members. Nada explains,
“We wanted to create items that ISIS members would not question and would share widely”.
As with all fake news, believability was key. Daeshgram decided to piggyback on the global proliferation of fake news and use it to their advantage. Nada comments,
“Naturally we’re aware of the discussions across the globe about fake news and the harmful impact it has had on countries, especially in their elections. Fake news has been used to destabilize functioning democracies... While the tactics we have used are indeed similar, we - in contrast to other actors - openly acknowledge that we are purposefully creating confusion to delegitimize and discredit Daesh propaganda.”
As successful as this has been in spreading discord, the crowning-jewel was operation #ParalyzingAmaq. Amaq is ISIS' media arm. Daeshgram hacked the main Amaq website, including its Firefox plugin. This was significant, because Firefox automatically redirects followers to the latest media offering of Amaq. Thus the hack meant double trouble for ISIS - but that wasn't all...
Daeshgram used the opportunity to upload bogus Amaq sites. It had created these to replicate genuine Amaq sites. Because the replicas appeared so authentic, they were widely distributed as genuine among dozens of Telegram users, with ISIS members vouching for their authenticity. The scheme has forced ISIS to devote time and resources to constantly checking and correcting the damage.
It appears to have been a successful venture for the young hackers. It inflicted damage on ISIS' previously unabated worldwide media assault. This is certainly more than just an annoyance to ISIS. Daeshgram's mission was to confuse the terrorists and sow doubt, which is precisely what they achieved.
In ISIS circles, questioning the caliphate or its media arm is cause for banishment - or worse. Thus the sight of ISIS members quarrelling over the authenticity of information following the Amaq hack delighted the Daeshgram team. Nada concludes,
“ISIS supporters don’t know which Amaq sites to trust... they don’t trust Amaq anymore.”
That certainly sounds like doubt and discord to me.
Opinions are the writer's own.