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In August 2014, a Twitter account affiliated with Anonymous, the hacker-crusader collective, declared “full-scale cyber war” against ISIS: “Welcome to Operation Ice #ISIS, where #Anonymous will do it’s [sic] part in combating #ISIS’s influence in social media and shut them down.”
In July, I traveled to a gloomy European capital city to meet one of the “cyber warriors” behind this operation. Online, he goes by the pseudonym Mikro. He is vigilant, bordering on paranoid, about hiding his actual identity, on account of all the death threats he has received. But a few months after I initiated a relationship with him on Twitter, Mikro allowed me to visit him in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend and two Rottweilers. He works alone from his chaotic living room, using an old, battered computer—not the state-of-the-art setup I had envisaged. On an average day, he told me, he spends up to 16 hours fixed to his sofa. He starts around noon, just after he wakes up, and works late into the night and early morning.
No state intelligence agency assigned Mikro this work. He answers to no one and uses methods that are not only ethically ambiguous, but also beyond any kind of democratic oversight and accountability. Nobody even knows what he’s doing except for his girlfriend and a motley crew of dedicated operatives. His neighbors just think he’s a recluse. To his friends, he’s a computer nerd.
Unbeknownst to any of them, Mikro is the “operations officer” for GhostSec, a group with the self-declared mission of targeting “Islamic extremist content” from “websites, blogs, videos, and social media accounts,” using both “official channels” and “digital weapons.” The group claims to have disrupted or taken down more than 130 ISIS-linked websites by overwhelming their servers with fake traffic from multiple sources. (This is called a Distributed Denial of Service, or DDOS, attack.)