Last night, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) hacked the French television network TV5 Monde, preventing it from broadcasting for three hours and taking control of its social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook.
Twelve hours after the attack, the network is still unable to diffuse anything but prerecorded documentaries on its 11 television channels. Similarly, while the network’s webpage is currently officially “under maintenance”, it was briefly under the control of two hacker groups, one located in Algeria and the other in Iraq.
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Calling themselves the “Cybercaliphate”, these ISIL cyber activists were able to broadcast propaganda videos and the personal information and resumes of French soldiers fighting extremist groups as well as some details about their family members.
The attack comes at a time when the French military has been able to boast significant achievements from operations in Africa, both directly against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and indirectly – through African forces – against Boko Haram.
At the forefront
Last Monday, French commando forces managed to free Dutch hostage Sjaak Rijke from his AQIM kidnappers in Mali. Last month, France also successfully convinced the international community to back the Chad-led coalition against terrorist groups in Nigeria.
More than ever, France is at the forefront of the fight against radicalism and the so-called Cybercaliphate was clearly mocking the response to January’s Charlie Hebdo attack by replacing TV5 Monde’s front page with a “Je suIS IS” banner.
The “Cybercaliphate” has been active for a few months already. In February, it hacked Newsweek’s social media accounts to issue a direct threat to the US president’s wife and children, tweeting “#CyberCaliphate Bloody Valentine’s Day #MichelleObama! We’re watching you, your girls and your husband!”
Earlier in the year, it took control of the US Central Command YouTube account to post terrorist propaganda videos.
What is new, however, is both the strength and the target of the attack. Last night’s hacking operation showed that ISIL fighters have stepped up their cyber activism capacities from the simple defacing of western organisations’ internet sites earlier this year. They’ve shown that ISIL now has the power to freeze the operations of a western media network with state-of-the-art technological systems.
The choice of target is also revealing of the threat western media appears to pose for ISIL recruitment. TV5 Monde is by no means a military target. It is a news network which prides itself on diffusing the French “Art de Vivre”, broadcasting essentially documentaries about culinary excellence, artistic achievements, education and news. Its very slogan since 2006, “One World, Many Worlds” advocates a pluralism of civilisations and cultural exchanges.
Last night's hacking operation showed that ISIL fighters have stepped up their cyber activism capacities ...
This editorial guideline is in complete opposition to ISIL’s discourse which advocates for a rigorous and monolithic teaching, devoid of arts and cross-cultural enrichment. As TV5 Monde increases its broadcasts throughout the world, being watched by an average of 55 million viewers every week, it collides with ISIL recruitment efforts in urban areas in Africa and the Middle East.
The cyber attack on TV5 Monde is another step in the attempt to prevent the diffusion of freedom of press values and a plurality of media throughout the world.
Anonymous v Cybercaliphate
The hacking of TV5 Monde also shows that counterinsurgency against ISIL is not limited to traditional warfare and local militia groups. The last few months have seen the recurrence of cyber warfare with an official declaration of war from the well-known Anonymous hackers against ISIL propaganda tools. The World Wide Web is now the theatre of operation for an all-out conflict between hackers.
The Anonymous hacker collectives’ action has led to the successful shutting down of more than 800 social media accounts, neutralising propaganda Twitter and Facebook feeds. An Anonymous dedicated team labelled “Kill ISIS Ninjas” was created to reinforce surveillance against recruiting videos geared towards teenagers around the world.
The cyberattack on TV5 Monde is therefore a concrete example of how the global confrontation between a retrograde ISIL criminal organisation and modern civilisation is developing in the communication world.
While western countries have regularly tried to muzzle cyber activists from Anonymous, preventing them from disclosing classified information, both are in the same camp when it comes to preventing ISIL from taking over modern means of communication. Because what is at stake and what ISIL is targeting here is not a perceived normative takeover from western countries and establishments, it is instead the very foundation of freedom of expression, progress and multicultural development, an ideal both governments and anarchists are eager to defend.
Remi Piet is an assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy and international political economy at Qatar University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.