There’s a new group of soldiers in the cyber war against terrorism. They operate online, on their own and follow a unique set of rules.
They call themselves patriotic hackers. They claim they are doing what the Government does not do—taking down terrorist-run websites that recruit Westerners and support Jihadi propaganda.
NBC 5 Investigates explored this illegal world where hackers break the law in the name of patriotism.
Little is known about the controversial, cyber vigilante who goes only by the moniker Jester. He operates in the shadows, a lone wolf, waging war on terrorists. The self-described patriot claims to be former military with contacts in the Government. And he has a cult following of more than 66,000 Twitter followers.
“The Jester, he’s a white hat hacker,” said cyber terrorism expert Ryan Maness, a visiting fellow of security and resilience studies at Northeastern University.
NBC 5 Investigates contacted Jester five months ago through Twitter. After countless texts and a vetting process, he agreed to a rare interview—in an encrypted chat room.
“Approximately five years ago I realized that there was a growing threat from Jihadis online using the internet to recruit, radicalize and even train homegrowners,” he said. “I decided to research their favorite haunts, collect intelligence on the users and admins and in many cases remove them by force. I tended to hit some sites a lot and leave others. This had the effect of herding/funneling them into a smaller space. And smaller spaces are easier to watch and monitor.”
He claims to have hacked and taken down more than 170 Jihadi websites since 2010, each success marked by the military phrase Tango Down. NBC5 Investigates confirmed his claims through three independent sources.
“The actual takedown is pretty easy,” he said. “I developed a piece of software for stress-testing servers, it was quite effective. I used this to pull them down.”
He claims to know people inside of the Government and therefor stays away from websites they might already be looking at.
“I don’t hit the ones that are being actively monitored and infiltrated on the Human Intelligence side. And I herd more people to them by hitting everything else around them, leaving them no place to go except into the arms of the big boys.”
And for the first time he reveals that these highly-produced recruiting sites are likely being run from a University campus in Ar-Raqqah, Syria.
“He’s actually doing some social good by taking down these malicious websites,” said Maness.
He believes hackers like Jester can be motivated by a sense of duty.
“We’re not the only country that has that,” said Maness. “Russia has a big contingency of cyber patriots that fight using their skills on the computer to put forth their country’s national interest. A lot of these computer people that are fighting back against ISIS have the ability to do so and they’re able to shut down these networks.”
Just last week the hacking group Anonymous released a video claiming to have targeted 800 Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and dozens of e-mails associated with ISIS.
“ISIS we will hunt you, take down your sites, emails and expose you,” said a voice in the video posted on Anonymous’s website. “From now on, no safe place for you online.”
The Government has poured major resources into an online campaign against ISIS propaganda. The State Department produced a video called “Think Again Turn Away” which is meant to expose the brutality of ISIS.
“Without a doubt the biggest threat we are looking at is the ISIS threat,” said FBI agent Brian Murphy, who heads Chicago’s counter terrorism division.
The unit has a major focus on Islamic State recruiting websites.
“We identify them,” he said. “We try to engage them, understand their networks and we try and take targeted action that will disrupt that network.”
Similar to what hacktivists like Anonymous and Jester claim they do. Yet the Government is clear in their message: any type of hacking is illegal.
“My advice would be that’s the roll of the Government,” said Murphy. “While we appreciate the sentiment it may have consequences beyond what these people are trying to do. I would encourage people if they run across these websites and feel they are important to contact us. That’s what we are here for.”