Hacktivism: the Perfect Recruitment Tool for Terrorist Organizations The book The Art of Intrusion by hacker and
security researcher Kevin Mitnick tells the story of two boys who were taken advantage of by a man known as Khalid the Terrorist. Two young hackers, known as ne0h and Comrade, were approached in a hacker hangout on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) by a man who challenged the boys to break into government and defense computers. After all, being able to hack into those systems was considered a holy grail. The terrorist used two simple tactics, one of which will work on most hackers. Rather than threatening the boys, Khalid challenged their skills and made them feel that they had to prove they could hack into these systems. He later used bribery as well. The information given to Khalid by ne0h and Comrade is suspected to be some of the information that was used to plan the Taliban hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814. The boys did not truly realize they were aiding a terrorist until after the fact (Mitnick & Simon, 2005). So, as you see, it would not be so far fetched that a terrorist group such as Hamas would use Anonymous/LulzSec as a front to recruit support or to entice young hackers to commit acts that would promote a terrorist cause. Criminological Theories That Explain the Hacker’s Potential For Recruitment Looking back to criminology, the effectiveness of using social media and a “hacktivist” movement to recruit supporters or perhaps operatives makes sense. Individuals commit digital crimes for many different reasons. Although not all hackers are criminals, criminological theories perhaps best explain the factors that contribute to a hacker’s vulnerabilities and, in turn, the potential ways in which an organized crime
ring or terrorist group may target those vulnerabilities to recruit hacker talent. The Choice Theory asserts that an individual makes a conscious and rational decision to commit a crime after weighing the risks and benefits. The Deterrence Theory supposes that offenders choose to commit a crime because the penalty for that crime does not deter them from committing the crime. Some individuals do not think incarceration or even the death penalty are unpleasant enough that they would like to avoid those punishments. If an individual is “guaranteed” anonymity, he or she may also boldly commit an act that would otherwise have severe consequences. The Social Structure theories, in particular the Strain Theories view crime as a result of deprivation or perceived deprivation, feelings of inadequacy, or perhaps another stressor such as the loss of a loved one. These theories suggest that stress and strain drive people to use criminal means to seek material wealth or other things that “compensate” for their condition in life (Taylor, et al., 2006). The Subculture Theory suggests that criminals hold values, norms, and beliefs that are in opposition to what is socially acceptable. Subculture Theory and the related Differential Opportunity Theory and Delinquency and Frustration Theory teach that disadvantaged upbringing, lack of opportunity, and inability to obtain middle class or desired status cause affected individuals to band together and form their own subcultures with their own ideals. These subcultures may simply act in ways contrary to the social norm or may turn to crime, violence, and gang membership to fulfill their needs for acceptance. Social Structure Theories are related and suggest that when traditional goals are blocked, individuals look for new and creative ways to pursue goals. This innovation often leads to criminal activity. The other response when goals
are blocked is for individuals to rebel by rejecting societyʼs goals and the means to attain those goals. This can lead to an alternative economy with alternative opportunity structures and an alternative view of what is and is not acceptable. This theory often explains the origins of criminal hackers, particularly those who seemed convinced that what they are doing is not wrong but is a way to correct a social injustice (Taylor, et al., 2006). The related Neutralization or Drift Theory supposes that some criminals do have traditional values but temporarily suspend these values due to circumstance. The techniques a person may use to neutralize his or her sense of right and wrong include denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of victim, condemnation of the condemners, and appealing to higher loyalties. Taking on an online alter-ego may also allow the criminal to distance himself from his real world character and allow him to perform acts he would not otherwise consider (Taylor, et al., 2006). Social Process Theories perhaps best explain the development of virus writers, as the process of learning to write viruses entails a learning and social conditioning process by peers in the hacker or virus writing community. Many of these virus writers must “prove themselves” when first starting, or the rest of the community will be unwilling to teach them anything. Positive reinforcement following a successful virus appeals to the personʼs ego and/or deep need for acceptance. The virus writer also often adopts the viewpoint that writing viruses can actually help people by exposing vulnerabilities, or he or she may subscribe to other skewed values promoted by the community that can lead the person to think computer crime is justified. This theory can also explain why some individuals would be drawn to Anonymous/LulzSec, even if they do not necessarily adhere to the group’s ideals. Anonymous/LulzSec becomes a
proving ground for their skills and a way to seek acceptance. Political Theory explains why many hacktivists and terrorists turn to computer crime. The overwhelming political objective that they wish to achieve drives them to seek any means necessary, including means that are considered to be digital crime (Taylor, et al., 2006). Although many of the individuals involved with Anonymous/LulzSec are merely riding the bandwagon or are script kiddies at best, the group does seem to have a few hackers at its disposal. Most hackers are extremely intelligent (many are even geniuses), which often leads them to question everything, including the logic behind the legal system, particularly by what logic the laws were derived, for what purpose, and by whom. I think some of the previously discussed theories on criminal behavior help to explain hackers, particularly criminal hackers. Borrowing from the Strain Theory and its assertion that “lack of opportunity” often leads one to criminality, one can begin to see how the hacker becomes marginalized in the first place (Taylor, et al., 2006). Because many hackers are abstract-minded, geniuses, or “gifted”, they at one point faced the same disadvantages of other gifted children. Gifted children are often marginalized because their intellect sets them apart from peers. Although it is a bit different from the traditional “underprivileged child” scenario, these little geniuses are literally held back by the social norms and education that others strive to obtain. These children become bored, frustrated, or resentful because they are not able to exercise their full potential due to the constraints of the school curriculum that was intended for average children (Gross, 2004).
As a gifted child grows older, if he is not given the space to grow or develop, then he may exhibit behaviors that cause him to be labeled as a “troubled” individual. However, most hostility or aggression exhibited by these individuals can be traced to loneliness, bewilderment, and intellectual frustration (Gross, 2004). Unfortunately, the strain caused by such an experience often follows the individual well into adulthood, and the effects can be exacerbated when the individual is continually limited by forced mediocrity. It is at this point that the Subculture Theory becomes applicable. Hackers who spent their entire childhoods and perhaps a significant part of their early adult lives being marginalized for their intellect are likely to develop values, norms, and beliefs that do not align with those of the dominant culture. Rather than being truly disadvantaged, as are the subjects of most Strain Theory or Subculture Theory case studies, the hackerʼs intellectual advantage puts him or her at a disadvantage at the hands of others. Eventually, these marginalized geniuses-turned-hackers find one another and naturally develop their own subculture. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to an involvement in criminal hacking or even terrorist activity (Taylor, et al., 2006). The Role of Social Media in Recruiting Hacktivists and Terrorists The social media phenomenon, which has proven to be an effective tool for political campaigns and marketing campaigns alike, has also been heavily used by terrorist organizations to recruit, communicate, seek support, and to extend the organization’s sphere of influence. By definition, social media have three components: a concept, media, and social interface. The concept is a category, such as art, information, or political speech. Media are user-generated content such as electronic
documents, digital photographs, audio recordings, or video. The social interface aspect of social media may be based on direct communication, community engagement, feedback and review systems, social viral media, electronic broadcasts, syndication, and other formats (Li & Bernoff, 2008). Popular examples of social media include YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. In order for social media to be effective, it must be connectivity based, providing a “one-to-many” model of communication and information dissemination (Defense Science Board, 2007). Social media also allows the creation of exclusive groups which can be targeted with carefully crafted content. This creates a sense of community and makes users feel more comfortable with sharing their true thoughts and opinions. The artificial sense of belonging can also enhance the social media’s intended impact on a target audience. For these reasons, social media is quickly becoming an important tool for both public and niche influence (Shirky, 2008). Anonymous/LulzSec has used social media sites, blogs, and IRC chat rooms in order to recruit supporters to aid in their DDoS and SQL injection attacks on corporate, federal, defense, and political entities. Some supporters of Anonymous voluntarily submitted their computers to a malware program based on Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC), effectively making their computers zombies in the Operation:Payback LOIC Hivemind botnet used to launch the DDoS attacks (Correll, 2010). Anonymous/LulzSec clearly understands how to leverage content in such a way that the content drives the vision. Anonymous/LulzSec uses social media such as YouTube, Twitter, blogs, and PasteBin posts to name their targets, to leak information, or to take credit for an attack after the fact. The group claims that their desire is to correct social injustice and to expose what they view as government and corporate corruption. Their messages incite
action by promising empowerment and a sense of belonging to their followers. The group also uses social media posts to grab the attention of mass media outlets (Ragan, 2011). The social media activities of Anonymous/LulzSec closely mimic the social media techniques used by terrorist organizations. Terrorist groups have been known to use social media for a variety of information operations functions including recruitment, indoctrination, communication, and command and control warfare tactics. Ayman alZawahiri, a senior al Qaeda leader, reportedly wrote in 2005, “We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media”. Radical Islamic terrorists often soften their image and use social media tools such as YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace to spread propaganda in order to gain sympathy from Westerners and others who would reject more radical messages. These terrorists also employ harsher messages and interactive social media platforms to recruit young Muslims, to indoctrinate them, to incite jihad, and to instruct them in terrorist methods such as bombmaking. The terrorists have clearly learned how to leverage these tools to expand their spheres of influence. Like Anonymous/LulzSec, they also rely on anonymity to help avoid detection (Theohary & Rollins, 2011). Conclusion It appears as though the members of Anonymous/LulzSec joined the movement largely for a sense of belonging, to prove their self-proclaimed hacking skills, or to join seemingly likeminded individuals in what they believe to be a necessary political and social overhaul. The Neutralization/Drift Theory, Social Process Theories, and Political
Theory seem to best explain the behaviors and mindset that cause these individuals to become marginalized and in some cases morally degraded. This, in turn, leaves them vulnerable to being inadvertently drawn to what may very well be a terrorist organization. Social media has been used effectively by both terrorist organizations and by the instigators behind Anonymous/LulzSec to recruit, to organize, and to influence. It is difficult to say whether the hacktivist collective known as Anonymous/LulzSec originally began as a terrorist venture or if it merely has the potential to be hijacked by terrorists who may view it as a golden opportunity to recruit young misguided hacker talent who could be used as scapegoats if need be. However, it is becoming apparent that there is more to Anonymous/LulzSec than what meets the eye.
References Correll, S. P. (2010). In ʻTis the season of DDoS - WikiLeaks edition. Retrieved from http://pandalabs.pandasecurity.com/tis-the-season-of-ddos-wikileaks-editio/#lieb
Defense Science Board. (2007). Challenges to Military Operations in Support of U.S. Interests. Washington, DC: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. Gross, M. (2004). Exceptionally gifted children. London: Routeledge. Li, C. & Bernoff, J. (2008). Groundswell, Winning in a world transformed by social technologies. Boston, MA: Harvard Business. Mitnick, K. & Simon, W. (2005). The art of intrusion: the real stories behind the exploits of hackers, intruders, and deceivers. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing. Ragan, S. (2011). In Anonymous: government contractor has weaponized social media. Retrieved from http://www.thetechherald.com/article.php/201111/6939/ Anonymous-Government-contractor-has-weaponized-social-media?page=1 Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York, NY: Penguin. Taylor, R., Caeti, T., Loper, D., Fritsch, E., & Liederbach, J. (2006). Digital crime and digital terrorism. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. Theohary, C. & Rollins, J. (2011). Terrorist use of the Internet: information operations in cyberspace. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from http://www.fas.org/ sgp/crs/terror/R41674.pdf
Sabu, known as anonymousabu on Twitter, is thought to be a member of both Anonymous and LulzSec. Although Sabu’s identity is still largely unknown, it seems that he/she/they may have terrorist connections. Anonymous/LulzSec have attacked both federal and DoD/contractor targets. Their fan base is worldwide, and Sabu seems to be using this fame to steer trafﬁc toward a rapper whose site appears to be recruiting for Hamas. I have provided all of the possible evidence I have gathered thus far. 1) Please see other attached document for possible origins of the name “Sabu” and for hints suggesting a link to Hamas. Sabu uses a Hamas ﬂag as his Twitter icon. 2) I have been carefully watching Sabu’s posts. He has been promoting a rapper called Beast1333. More on Beast1333 below. The Beast1333 website seems to be some kind of recruiting site for Hamas and even sells bullet proof vests. Could not make this stuff up if I tried. 3) These are more circumstantial, but Sabu tends to call people “brother” and “sister” a lot. Sabu uses the words “resistance” and “movement”, which are common terms used by Islamic radicals to describe their activities. In fact, Hamas is an acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement”. Anonymous’ taglines include “We are Legion”. Although this could reference a number of things including Biblical and Roman origins, it is possible that they are referring to the Arab Legion, part of Hitler’s SS forces in WW2. Sabu also uses the word “nein” - German for “no”. The main signiﬁcance here is that Mein Kampf, the book by Adolph Hitler, is said to be a book of choice for radical Muslims, particularly Hamas members. The Hamas charter has even been compared to Mein Kampf. Arab Legion explained http://www.knowledgerush.com/kr/encyclopedia/ArabNazi_relationship_during_World_War_II/ 4) The number 1333 (or perhaps the year) seems to have some signiﬁcance to Muslims. I think it had to do with them coming to power and forcing Jewish people to either convert to Islam or be killed. Maybe someone more familiar with Islamic beliefs and history can decipher that one. 5) Links YouTube vid of Beast1333’s song about Anonymous http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XFSAeLo65Q Sidebar of that page has links to more of his songs. Very sneaky lyrics, might I add. Sabu Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/anonymouSabu Beast1333 Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/beast1333 Beast1333 Website: http://www.beast1333.com/home
Correlates with the “Three Levels of Faith” screenshot: http://www.aljazeerah.info/ Islamic%20Editorials/2007/May/Three%20Levels%20of%20Faith%20Islam,%20Iman, %20and%20Ihsan%20By%20Hassan%20El-Najjar.htm The rest of what I found is below with a few annotations in red.
Has Anonymous’ Sabu been promoting a terrorist recruiting site? Step 1: Download the Islamic Imagery Project document from the West Point Combating Terrorism Center here http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-islamic-imageryproject Step 2: Compare the symbols used in the imagery below to the symbols explained in the document you downloaded in Step 1. The images are from the Beast1333.com site. Who is Beast1333? A rapper that Sabu, member of Anonymous and Lulz Sec has been promoting on his Twitter feed. Sabu proudly sports a Hamas ﬂag as his Twitter icon. All quotes taken from the Islamic Imagery Project document and are borrowed for informational and educational purposes only. Red arrows on images were added by me.
“The lion is more generally associated with the
early companions of the Prophet and their heroic deeds in the field of religious battle (jihad). In the modern era, it has been deployed by Islamist authors such as Sayyid Qutb, and has become a key motif in jihadist propaganda. It is employed as a term of honor for both major jihadi leaders and for low-ranking suicide bombers/jihadi militants.”
“The snake is a common symbol in the Islamic tradition. It suggests treachery, tyranny, and general evil. The snake is often employed by jihadists to describe their enemies.”
“Jihadi visual propaganda uses the globe, or Earth, to globalize specific issues and conflicts, as well as to articulate the global aims of particular groups.”
“The eagle is used to denote fierceness in battle. It generally suggests qualities
of strength, power, speed, and victory in the jihadi struggle...It is used to highlight and emphasize specific individual jihadi fighters or groups, especially in Palestine and among the Palestinian diaspora.” “Weapons are symbolically important in Islamic culture and are commonly used as motifs in jihadi visual propaganda...Pre-modern weaponry includes swords or spears, and is used to suggest the violent reality of the jihadi struggle. These images also link jihadi struggle to early Islamic history and the first generation of Muslims...depictions of the sword indicate a desire to link the current jihadi movement and its aims to those of the early Islamic ancestors, and to thus legitimize and depict current jihadi activities as the modern extensions of successful early Islamic jihadi campaigns.”
“Modern weapons, such as rifles and RPGs, illustrate the violent nature of
jihadi warfare and also exaggerate the power of the jihadists’ military technology...Modern weapons are also used by jihadi soldiers and martyrs to associate themselves with violent jihadi activism and construct their identities as participants in jihad.”
“Greenery – plants, trees, forests – is very common in jihadi imagery. While
greenery is usually non-specific and used as a background element, it almost always conjures up notions of the Islamic concept of heaven being a lush garden (janna).”
“Red can have many meanings in the Islamic tradition; however its usage in jihadi imagery is generally simple and straightforward. It most often represents blood, war (and thus jihad), tyranny, oppression, defeat, and victory.”
“Weapons can also be used in different combinations, or presented in different ways, to evoke more complex sentiments. One of these methods is the “crossed” motif. It is employed by various groups throughout the Muslim world, and is usually done with swords, rifles, and RPGs. While this motif evokes all of the meanings associated with each weapon used, it is also used more generally to suggest a group’s participation in, or espousal of, the contemporary jihadi movement.”