The hacktivist group called Anonymous told jihadists worldwide it would avenge the attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Yet it's fair to question the feasibility of such an endeavor, given the group's typical mode of operandi is disrupting websites, not conducting counterterrorist operations. Even if they could, some are asking if they should, for fear it might beget more violence and escalate a fringe culture war.
"We will track you down -- every last one -- and will kill you," a spokesperson wearing the signature Guy Fawkes mask said, in French, in a YouTube video posted on Thursday.
"You will not impose your sharia law in our democracies, we will not let your stupidity kill our liberties and our freedom of expression. We have warned you; expect your destruction," the Fawkes character added, while calling out the Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda by name, and mocking their sensitivity over derogatory images of The Prophet depicted in Hebdo cartoons.
Social media was subsequently abuzz with diverging reactions provoked by the Anonymous pronouncement. On Facebook, Afghan native Khalil Nouri warned of the consequences of trying to "kill fire with fire," while asking if Anonymous was potentially fueling a, "clash of civilizations."
One Anonymous supporter was surprised by the violent rhetoric, but doubted the group would follow through with such a threat.
"They have no history of physical violence, only cyber. They shut down internet pages. Their resources can find anyone online, I'm sure," photographer and musician, Michael Tucci, said. He envisions anonymous, "concentrating efforts to disrupt Islamic extremism's support and communication."
Tucci also pointed out the irony that Anonymous, which has always been anti-establishment, finds itself on the side of government security entities, as ideologically different groups come together to defeat a common adversary.
Inventor Phil Dybala was a bit more explicit in downplaying Anonymous' paramilitary capacity, saying that, "by hunt down and kill them," Anonymous really means, "hack their iTunes account and block their Netflix stream."
Besides an ambiguous bloody call to arms, Anonymous did ominously outline some of its more standard practices, including tracking all jihadist activities online and closing down social media sites. Not quite the same as taking down Amazon's website, in terms of destroying core capabilities, but it certainly could prove to be disruptive on some level to the jihadist cyber-warrior movement.
But, it painfully boggles the mind trying to imagine how these hacktivists would fulfill their well-crafted lethal decree. One could probably hear the echoes of laughter emanating from terrorist sanctuaries and caves throughout Iraq and Syria when news of the Anonymous threat came to light.
But what if Anonymous' call for bloody revenge really amounts to more than bluster and empty threats, however inconceivable at present? Pondering such a hypothetical might seem rightfully futile, not to mention wasteful, but it could still make for an interesting thought experiment.
It is tempting to feel that such vigilantism would be a just counterattack, assuming it is appropriately and proportionately measured. A chilling volley by a virtual, non-state, lone-wolf actor that could strike at any time seems like a just recipe.
The Anonymous proclamation makes one want to stand up and cheer. Let's really put these suckers on the run. Putting the terrorists on notice so opaquely might be even more satisfying, and effective, than drone strikes -- which, I mean, the jihadists can hear coming from a mile away.
Then again, we have been down this road before. Have we not? Targeted assassinations, be it via drone or whatever sci-fi, magical technique Anonymous intends to use, can sound enticing on the surface, but it has drawn considerable blowback. Plus, ultimately, "collateral damage," always accompanies such seemingly brilliant stratagems. Who makes the hit list? Will such an approach really deter them? Can Anonymous kill every last one of them?
And do the lovers of free speech really want Anonymous, "on that wall," so to speak, protecting their dear liberties and making choices of how to do so?
Not to mention there is the matter of where vigilantes should stop. Do we kill 12 of "them" or more? There is also the risk of painting with too broad a brush and having such a hyper-focus on a particular religion, because soon all Muslims could be demonized over the acts of a psychotic few.
Then what is the answer? Certainly, punitive attacks, both cyber and physical, could be within the repertoire of response. But these are surface-level serums with fleeting impact, providing us with a short-term warm and fuzzy that doesn't solve the underlying issues.
Most certainly, enhancing law enforcement and intelligence capabilities is a higher-priority. Commonsensical improvements in tracking of Islamic radicals that travel to and fro conflict regions would be a more prudent employ of resources. Undercutting the violent extremist narrative, primarily by avoiding foreign policy pitfalls that provide fodder for these organizations to recruit, mold and unleash degenerates willing to murder over cartoons.
Beware, Anonymous likes to say, because, "We are Legion," ironically using biblically cryptic language. Although, we also must remember, so are "they" - and growing.