Anonymous vs. ISIS: Netpolitik After the Paris Attacks

There have been many government and citizen reactions to the horrors of the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015. France is effectively declaring war on ISIS, legislatures debate their nation's role in response, and many people around the globe show solidarity with the French people by personal acts such as laying wreaths or superimposing French flags on their Facebook profile pictures.

But there is one reaction that so exemplifies the current state of the networked world that it warrants closer analysis. That is the filmed declaration of Anonymous to take down ISIS. It is the epitome of the theory of Netpolitik, which Leshuo Dong and I wrote about earlier this year. In that piece, entitled, "Netpolitik: What the Emergence of Networks Means for Diplomacy and Statecraft," we postulated that "realpolitik" and "international liberalism" no longer sufficed as diplomatic models to resolve world problems. The Westphalian concept of sovereign nations dealing with each other as states has limited application to a world where networks are the dominant form of organization.

Borders are porous to different degrees when it comes to keeping out climate, disease, pollution, crime, currencies, economic effects, and information. Networks of people, organizations, and even governments transverse borders as well. If our businesses rely on the network organizational form, our military engages in net-centric warfare, and even our enemies persist as networks, we postulated, then governments should employ network principles to assert national interests in the world of diplomacy.

Now, however, we see a wrinkle: the cyber-vigilante group Anonymous has declared war on ISIS. That is, a non-governmental network of anonymous hackers will fight against an international network of violent terrorists on the cyber-war field. They will no doubt employ those network principles we mentioned in "Netpolitik", and many more that we can learn from them, in pursuit of the new global bad guy. For example, just as biological organisms have to fight against viruses, communications networks become vulnerable at their weakest spot. The terrorist network that has been so savvy with new media now faces a network of accomplished hackers in a potentially formidable challenge to the group.

This, then, is a prime example of netpolitik, the engagement of networks to counter networks - though in this case it goes beyond diplomacy. It is an early episode in guerilla cyber-warfare. At the least this development bears close watching. Hopefully, Anonymous will announce its victories as ISIS does theirs. The fight against ISIS will take all kinds of efforts, in the air, on the ground, and now, over the ether. But who do you have confidence in to make a significant dent in the job? The countries that have professed to defeat ISIS and its antecedents again and again? (Not that I think they are shirking from their responsibilities.) Or a cyber-savvy network who can find another net's vulnerability and dismantle its communications capabilities?

Today, nations should not have to rely on the white masks of digital vigilantes. Rather, they need cyber-rangers with the capabilities - talent, resources, resolve - to defeat their enemies, who more likely than not, will be networks, not nations.