“Owned again! Your site is ours Daesh. You have nowhere to hide. You are weak,” reads a message by hackers waging war on Isis’ online “caliphate”.
They are celebrating a huge cyber attack that sees anyone attempting to view the terrorist group’s Amaq propaganda website met with malicious software disguised as an update.
By creating a virtual “back door” into devices, it is able to activate cameras, log keystrokes, steal files, read phone messages, take screenshots, detect GPS locations and collect contacts from unsuspecting jihadis.
The infiltration forced Isis to issue a warning to followers through Amaq’s encrypted Telegram channel, saying its latest Arabic language website had been “penetrated” by a virus, adding: “Please exercise caution.”
When The Independent tried to access the site, it was automatically blocked with a warning from Google that attackers “might attempt to install dangerous programs on your computer that steal or delete your information” including photos, passwords and credit cards.
It is the latest move to ensnare Isis supporters through the group’s own propaganda, with a fake version of its Android mobile app previously created to track extremists and convincing forgeries of a propaganda magazine released online.
Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), said extremists were becoming “agitated” by intensifying online attacks.
“It’s leaving a lot of Isis paranoid and it’s a joy to behold,” he told The Independent.
“Something’s afoot. Someone is putting a lot of effort in sowing discord and paranoia – it’s very effective.”
Hackers around the world are launching ever more sophisticated attacks on Isis’ websites and communications, with collectives hailing their success using the hashtags #OpIsis and #OpIceIsis on Twitter.
Among them is CtrlSec, which has declared its mission to limit and destroy “online extremism in all shapes”.
Its founder is Mikro, a 20-something hacktivist leading global efforts to get jihadi Twitter accounts taken down.
“Isis is the main target but we handle all types of extremists,” he told The Independent.
“They adapt to the situation they are put in, like any other person would over time.”
When the “caliphate” was declared three years ago, militants were openly using Twitter to call for people to travel to Syria or Iraq, while sharing gory videos alongside rosy depictions of their lives in the so-called Islamic State.
So brazen were communications that in 2015, Mikro and fellow hacktivists chanced upon an Isis cell in Tunisia plotting attacks on British and Jewish tourists and passed the information to security services, resulting in more than a dozen arrests.
The accounts of Isis’ most prolific tweeters have long been removed but supporters and “fanboys” continue to start countless new accounts in running battles to evade activists and moderators.
Mikro believes technology firms and governments are not doing enough to crack down on extremist social networking, claiming activists’ efforts are more effective.
“The day we run out of work then enough is done, but I do not see an end to this in sight,” he added.
“We are playing whack-a-mole since third parties don’t collaborate.”
Mikro said he has received so many death threats that he stopped bothering to record them two years ago, and keeps his name, identity and location a closely guarded secret for his own safety.
Similarly secretive is a Muslim collective called Di5s3nSi0N, which has been hacking websites hosting Isis propaganda including its Amaq and Halummu news agencies, al-Furqan video outlet and al-Bayan online radio station.
It overwrites sites with its calling card – a red and black picture with the caption “Stand Against Isis” and the message “HaCK3d by Di5s3nSi0N”, accompanied by smiley faces.
The group identifies itself as Sunni Muslim, with a mission statement reading: “The steadfast youth of ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jammah can no longer tolerate the obscenities of the Baghdadi gang who abuse religion and insult the dignity of people.”
It sends out frequent tweets aiming to enrage Isis supporters, telling them they are “soooooo weak” and “you are not Muslim”, warning: “We’re coming for you.”
Meanwhile, the End of Daesh group describes itself as the “online nemesis of Isis”, calling for help to “smash” extremist sites with cyber attacks.
Members of the Anonymous hacking collectivist are also continuing their own #OpIsis attacks after declaring war on the group following the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Gregg Housh, a former Anonymous activist, said hackers were using a range of methods including distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that flood websites with traffic until they crash, to great effect.
“I think the hacktivists are winning the battle for one very simple reason,” he told The Independent.
“When you have to move, your user base has to find the new sites and accounts.
“It’s hard to build a large following and a large amount of influence if you have to keep jumping around to new domains, new hosts and new Twitter accounts.”
“Certainly the landscape has changed profoundly over the course of the past few years, but the group is still eminently capable in propaganda dissemination,” he said.
“A website gets knocked down and it comes back exactly the same in a few days or hours with a slightly different url…it’s a game of cat and mouse.”
Timeline: The emergence of Isis
Timeline: The emergence of Isis
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (pictured here) forms an al-Qaeda splinter group in Iraq, al-Qa’eda in Iraq. Its brutality from the beginning alienates Iraqis and many al-Qaeda leaders.
Al-Zarqawi is killed in a U.S. strike. Al-Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, announces the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).
Still al-Qaeda-linked ISI claims responsibility for suicide bombings that killed 155 in Baghdad, as well as attacks in August and October killing 240, as President Obama announces troop withdrawal from Iraq in March.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi becomes head of ISI, at lowest ebb of Islamist militancy in Iraq, which sees last U.S. combat brigade depart.
In Syria, protests (pictured here starting in Daree) have morphed into what president Assad labelled a “real war” with emergence of a coalition of forces opposed to Assad’s regime. Syria group Jabhat al-Nusra are among rebel groups who refuse to join, denouncing it as a “conspiracy”. Bombings targeting Shia areas, killing more than 500 people, spark fears of new sectarian conflict. Sunni Muslims stage protests across country against what they see as increasingly marginalisation by Shia-led government.
Al-Baghdadi renames ISI as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or Isis, as the group absorbs Syrian al-Nusra, gaining a foothold in Syria. In response, al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri (Bin Laden’s successor) concerned about Isis’ expansion orders that Isis be dissolved and ISI operations should be confined to Iraq. This order is rejected by al-Baghdadi.
7/40 2014 - January
Isis fighters capture the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, giving them base to launch slew of attacks further south.
8/40 2014 - June
Isis declares itself the Caliphate, calling itself Islamic State (IS). The group captures Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city; Tal Afar, just 93 miles from Syrian border; and the central Iraqi city of Tikrit. These advances sent shockwaves around the world.
9/40 2014 - June
Around the same time Isis releases a video calling for western Muslims to join the Caliphate and fight, prompting new evaluations of extremists groups social media understanding.
10/40 2014 - June
Isis take Baiji oil fields in Iraq - giving them access to huge amounts of possible revenue.
11/40 2014 - August
James Foley is executed by the group as concerns grow for second American prisoner, fellow reporter Steven Sotloff.
12/40 2014 - August
Obama authorises U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, helping to stall Isis’ along with action by Kurdish forces following the deaths of hundreds of Yazidi people on Mount Sinjar.
13/40 2014 - September
Isis release video showing Steven Sotloff’s murder prompting Western speculation his executioner is same man who killed Mr Foley.
14/40 2014 - September
Obama tells us that America “will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country”
15/40 2014 - September
Isis release a video appearing to show David Haines, who was captured by militants in Syria in 2013, wearing an orange jumpsuit and kneeling in the desert while he reads a pre-prepared script. It later shows what appears to be the aid worker's body.
16/40 2014 - September
Peshmerga fighters scrabble to hold positions in the Diyala province (a gateway to Baghdad) as Isis fighters continue to advance on Iraqi capital.
17/40 2014 - October
Aid worker Alan Henning is killed. Self-imposed media blackout refuses to show images of him in final moments, instead focuses upon humanitarian care.
18/40 2014 - October
Isis raise their flag in Kobani, which had been strongly defended by Kurdish troops. The victory goes against hopeful western analysis Isis had overextended itself, while alienating much of the Muslim population through the murder of Henning. Victory causes fresh waves of Kurdish refugees arriving in Turkey.
19/40 2014 - November
American hostage, who embarced values of Islam, Peter Kassig and 14 Syrian soldiers are shown meeting the same fate as other captives. But intelligence agencies will be poring over the apparently significant discrepancies between this and previous films.
20/40 2015 - February
Isis has released a video revealing the murder by burning to death of a Jordanian pilot held by the group since the end of December 2014.
21/40 2015 - February
Isis militants have released videos which appear to show the beheading of Japanese hostages Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto.
22/40 2015 - February
American aid worker, Kayla Mueller was the last American hostage known to be held by Isis. She died, according to her captors, in an airstrike by the Jordanian air force on the city of Raqqa in Syria, though US authorities disputed this.
23/40 2015 - February
Isis militants have posted a gruesome video online in which they force 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian hostages to kneel on a beach in Libya before beheading them. Egypt vowed to avenge the beheading and launched air strikes on Isis positions.
24/40 2015 - February
The British Isis militant suspected of appearing in videos showing the beheading of Western hostages has been named in reports as Mohammed Emwazi from London.
25/40 2015 - March
Isis triple suicide attack has killed more than 100 worshippers and hundreds of others were injured after the group members targeted two mosques in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.
26/40 2015 - April
Iraqi forces have claimed victory over Isis in battle for Tikrit and raised the flag in the city.
27/40 2015 - April
Isis has claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan that killed at least 35 people queuing to collect their wages and injured 100 more.
28/40 2015 - April
Isis’ media arm released a 29-minute video purporting to show militants executing Ethiopian Christians captives. The footage bore the extremist group’s al-Furqan media logo and showed the destruction of churches and desecration of religious symbols. A masked fighter made a statement threatening Christians who did not convert to Islam or pay a special tax.
29/40 2015 - May
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis has been "incapacitated" by a spinal injuries sustained in a US air strike in Iraq. He is being treated in a hideout by two doctors from Isis’ stronghold of Mosul who are said to be "strong ideological supporters of the group".
30/40 2015 - May
Isis has also claimed responsibility for killing 300 of Yazidi captives, including women, children and elderly people in Iraq
31/40 2015 - May
Isis attack on Prophet Mohamed cartoon contest in Texas was its first action on US soil. Two gunmen were shot and killed after launching the attack at the exhibition. Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi have been named as the attackers at the Curtis Culwell Centre arena in Garland.
32/40 2015 - May
Isis’s deputy leader, Abu Alaa Afri, a former physics teacher who was thought to have taken charge of the deadly terrorist group, has been killed in a US-led coalition airstrike.
33/40 2015 - May
US special forces have killed a senior Isis leader named as Abu Sayyaf in an operation aiming to capture him and his wife in Syria.
34/40 2015 - May
Iran-backed militias are sent to Ramadi by the Iraqi government to fight Isis militants who completed their capture of the city. Government soldiers and civilians were reportedly massacred by extremists as they took control and the army fled. Charred bodies were left littering the city streets as troops clung on to trucks speeding away from the city. Ramadi is the latest government stronghold to fall to the so-called Islamic State, despite air strikes by a US-led international coalition aiming to stop its advance in Iraq and Syria.
35/40 2015 - May
Isis rounded up civilians trapped in Palmyra and forced them to watch 20 people being executed in the historic city’s ancient amphitheatre. The Unesco World Heritage site was overrun by militants, threatening the future of 2,000 year-old monuments and ruins. Thousands of Palmyra’s residents fled but many are still living within the city walls, while the UN human rights office in Geneva said it had received reports of Syrian government forces preventing people from leaving until they retreated from the city.
36/40 2015 - May
A group of Isis-affiliated fighters have captured a key airport in central Libya. The militants took control of the al-Qardabiya airbase in Sirte after a local militia tasked with defending the facility withdrew from their positions. Affiliates of Isis, already control large parts of Sirte, the birthplace of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and a former stronghold of his supporters.
37/40 2015 - June
The US Air Force has destroyed an Isis stronghold after an extremist let slip their location on social media. According the Air Force Times, General Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, said that Airmen at Hulburt Field, Florida, used images shared by jihadists to track the location of their headquarters before destroying it in an airstrike.
38/40 2015 - June
Kurdish forces captured a key military base in a significant victory in Raqqa as well as town of Tell Abyad. YPG fighters, backed by US-led airstrikes and other rebels, consolidated their gains, when they seized the key town on the Syria-Turkey border. They are now just 30 miles to the north of Raqqa and have cut off a major supply route deep inside Isis-held territory.
39/40 2015 - June
Isis has released gruesome footage claiming to show the murder of more than a dozen men by drowning, decapitation and using a rocket-propelled grenade as it seeks to boost morale among its fanatical supporters.
40/40 2015 - June
Isis has begun carrying out its threat to destroy structures in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, blowing up at least two monuments at the Unesco-protected site as Syrian government troops made advances on the Islamist’s positions.
Mr Winter said that although it had become more difficult for Isis to circulate its propaganda and posts do not stay online for as long as they once did, the group is still publishing huge amounts of articles, magazines, videos, photos and audio files.
“No matter how inhospitable the environment is, they’re still going to be able to use the internet,” he added, warning of far-right websites republishing Isis material that remains “very easy to access”.
Mr Winter said: “Islamphobes are circulating propaganda more efficiently than Isis itself can ever do, we need to start having that conversation.”
The Westminster attack has once again turned the British Government’s focus on to the group’s online propaganda efforts after Isis claimed responsibility for the massacre the left four victims dead.
Revelations that Khalid Masood used the messaging service WhatsApp just minutes before launching his attack sparked fresh debate over encryption and privacy, with communications providers meeting the Home Secretary on Thursday.
Amber Rudd said that although progress has been made, she would “like to see the industry to go further and faster in not only removing online terrorist content but stopping it going up in the first place”.
“I’d also like to see more support for smaller and emerging platforms to do this as well, so they can no longer be seen as an alternative shop floor by those who want to do us harm,” technology firms were told.
Michael S Smith II, a terrorism expert who recently gave evidence at the Global Coalition conference hosted by the Foreign Office, agrees, arguing that companies need to “increase the risk of exploiting their technologies to recruit and incite violence”.
“There’s really only so much that the UK government can do apart from diplomacy,” he added.
“Propaganda is merely one factor in the larger set of problems when you look at Isis’ unprecedented recruitment and incitement capabilities.”
He warned that Isis was using social media not only to spread its message, but to incite and control attacks, including a 2015 shooting at an exhibit featuring cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed in Texas.
That was linked to British Isis hacker Junaid Hussain, who foreshadowed attack on Twitter after the perpetrators used the social network to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Mr Smith argued that Western governments had been left behind by Isis’ exploitation of technology created in their own countries, with the group issuing detailed advice on how to encrypt communications and evade detection.
He called for more efforts to disrupt the publication of extremist material, warning that once it was flagged and removed, it was “too late” to stop countless copies popping up elsewhere.
“When you see all these hactivist groups forming, Isis has succeeded in undermining confidence in our governments’ capability to manage threats emanating from the cyber domain,” he added.
The British Government’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, which searches for extremist material and works with internet companies to take it down, has helped remove 250,000 pieces of extremist content since 2010, working at a current rate of 2,000 per week.
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