Exclusive interview with 'Ghassan' - a hacker with #Anonymous
We will call him Ghassan. That's the name he chose for this interview. "Names aren't important," he tells us. What's important is what he tells us he's been doing for the last 20 years: Ghassan is a hacker.
He was a teenager when he decided to join the "dark side of the internet", as he calls it.
"I got into hacking just for fun and to find out about that world," he tells al-Araby al-Jadeed. But soon that started to change. It was still fun, "but I decided to use it to support causes that I thought were deserving." That was before #Anonymous.
Ghassan remembers the day a group of "hacktivists" - online activists - decided to attack a radio show in the United States that supported racist, Nazi ideas.
They launched a "paper storm," with hundreds of phone calls and faxes to the programme, and within days, the presenter resigned.
That was a meaningful experience for Ghassan. More operations soon followed, and the group known as Anonymous began to take shape. But it was the Mandex case that gained it worldwide notoriety.
Who was Mandex?
Mandex was one of the most important hackers in the collective, but his identity didn't stay secret for long. He was Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks.
In April 2010, WikiLeaks hit the headlines after publishing leaked footage from an airstrike over Baghdad, in which Iraqi journalists were among those killed by an American helicopter. Subsequent documents leaked by the group included a set of almost 400,000 documents called the "Iraq War Logs" and thousands of U.S. State department diplomatic cables.
Assange, and Anonymous, were now under intense scrutiny, "especially after the money transfer and credit card companies refused to transfer donations to Wikileaks".
Ghasan describes in detail how the group hacked those companies, and in the end forced them to back down.
A democratic group
Who is Anonymous? How many hackers take part in it? What are the conditions for joining? Those questions seem distant from the reality of the group.
"It's not possible to limit the number. It's enormous, and it changes from operation to operation. In some operations there might be 50,000 hackers, whereas in other operations there could be just a thousand," says Ghassan. "There are people who join for a single operation then leave."
He says the group doesn't have membership cards, but each operation is independent. But how is each operation agreed upon?
"Simply put, anyone who has a suggestion for an operation designs a video about the operation, explaining its objectives and the information he has found about the target. As soon as the video is shared, if it gets agreement or consensus from the Anonymous community, the operation starts.
But if the operation doesn't get consensus, a few people within a small circle might take part in it and others won't get involved. So there are some operations by the group which don't appear very prominently."
"Anonymous is the most democratic group in the world. It doesn't have a president, leadership or hierarchy. The only criterion is respect for those who are senior."
Hacking operations against the Israeli government were popular within the Anonymous community.
"We had worked a lot to make the western hackers aware of the truth of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the crimes that Israel had committed since 1948, especially during the last war," said Ghassan. "Electronic warfare against Israel started to win near-unanimity, and we launched attacks against Israeli government websites. This had been controversial at the beginning."
He runs through a list of the sites that were targeted: the Ministry of Defence, the Israeli Antiquities Authority, the Ministry of Education, several banks, the Supreme Court… A large number of hackers took part in the operations, especially during the Gaza war. Anonymous put together a video on Israel's crimes and their own operations against the Occupation.
But when a group of Anonymous hackers named an attack in April this year "Internet Holocaust", it caused ruptures within the group. Many were against using the anti-semitic phrase, which has little to do with being against Israel.
"Especially as we were working with some Jewish anti-Zionist hackers," said Ghassan.
From that point onwards, Anonymous was split. It turned out that the hackers within the community who had carried out the "holocaust" attack were mostly Islamist extremists who supported Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS). Many other members joined a campaign to take down the extremist group's accounts on social media.
"We were monitoring pro-IS accounts on Twitter and hacking them or reporting on them. At that time Twitter's management wasn't closing down accounts," said Ghassan.
The operation was dubbed "Expose and Destroy."
Anonymous had a list of 800 Twitter accounts that were either hacked or reported on. The group kept track of a further 25,000 accounts of IS fighters or supporters, as well as Facebook and Youtube accounts.
After so many of its accounts were blocked, IS responded by setting up its own social networking site. But "Caliphate Book", which was set up as "a Shariah-compliant alternative to Facebook," didn't last long.
Anonymous hackers found out that the site was being hosted by Big Daddy Hosting. "We launched attacks against Big Daddy, which refused to meet our conditions," said Ghassan. "But three weeks after the first operation, the site was closed down."
Subverting Mubarak's Internet Shutdown
When the Egyptian uprising began on 25 January, 2011, the Mubarak regime realised that the internet was playing a major role in bringing protesters onto the streets. It responded by simply closing down the net.
Anonymous was determined to get Egypt back online.
"We gave out fax numbers, set up servers, and bought telephone modems," said Ghassan. "People would call the number linked to the modem, either for free or for a tiny charge, and a computer would answer them and link them up to the internet. We set up 17-20 modems, each of which could handle 500 people. That's how we managed to secure internet access for Egyptians who were supporting the protesters in the streets."