How Rickrolling is hindering counter-terrorism

When Anonymous launched its “very many cyberattacks” retaliation against the Islamic State (IS)* following the Paris attacks, we didn’t really know just what, exactly, it would entail.

Now we do. It entails Rick Astley.

People claiming affiliation with the Anonymous brand on Wednesday tweeted that they were preparing to launch Rickrolling attacks:

Rickrolling, for those unfamiliar with the ancient-by-internet-standards meme, is the bait-and-switch prank of posting links on social media accounts that connect to Rick Astley’s 1987 music video, “Never Gonna Give You Up”.

Anonymous “declared war” on Daesh* early last week, warning in a YouTube video that:

These [Paris] attacks cannot be left unpunished.

Within 24 hours of Daesh having called Anonymous “idiots,” Anonymous claimed to have taken down 5,500 of the group’s accounts.

The Anonymous-affiliated are, as is characteristic, proud of what they consider their hacking prowess.

Anonymous spokesman Alex Poucher told RT:

Our capability to take down ISIS is a direct result of our collective’s sophisticated hackers, data miners, and spies that we have all around the world. We have people very, very close to ISIS on the ground, which makes gathering intel about ISIS and related activities very easy for us.

[The collective has built tools that] might be better than any world government's tools to combat ISIS online.

But the intelligence agencies of the world’s governments are neither amused nor aided by the group’s antics.

In fact, finding and shutting down as many Daesh-affiliated social media accounts as they can find is hindering counter-terrorism.

One of the security groups that rely on the terror group’s social media presence to infiltrate and monitor jihadist accounts and forums is Ghost Security Group, known as GhostSec.

Like Anonymous with its denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, GhostSec also takes down terrorist sites – but it does so with far more discretion, aiming primarily for recruitment sites.

But that’s not all it does: GhostSec also reaps information from Daesh accounts.

Any important information it gathers, such as plans for major terrorist attacks and bomb-making instructions, it passes on to US intelligence agencies, such as the FBI.

This, not Rickrolling or DoS, is the type of counter-terrorism cyber work that’s productive. For example, GhostSec once passed information through a third party to the FBI that reportedly disrupted a suspected Daesh-linked cell in Tunisia as militants plotted a 4 July repeat of the Sousse beach massacre.

As Foreign Policy reports, GhostSec pulled it off with a mixture of Twitter tracking and geolocation via Google Maps.

As Tech.Mic tells it, Anonymous may boast about the closure of Daesh accounts, but it’s really GhostSecGroup that’s responsible for doing the bulk of the work when it comes to fighting the group online.

A GhostSec spokesman known as DigitaShadow had this to say about Anonymous’s less nuanced tactics:

When it comes to terrorist attacks, one of the big worries is that you could take down forums and cost someone their lives.

Anonymous has a habit of shooting in every direction and asking questions later.

Rickrolling is good for lulz.

Mind you, lulz are a welcome relief from horror.

Seriously. Saints bless the Belgians who responded to the #BrusselsLockdown by flooding social media with cat photos.

But when it comes to hampering the work of real counterterrorism, there’s little room for lulz.

*Given that IS isn’t actually a state, and that Isis is the name of an Egyptian nature goddess and of some women and girls who don’t deserve to be tormented over their lovely name, some prefer to call the terrorist group Daesh.

Image of Rick Astley courtesy of