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Anonymous and Tunisia: A New Cyber Warfare?

anonymousTunisia's 'Jasmine Revolution' ignited on December 17th, when a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a local police station. The demonstration struck a chord within millions of Tunisians -- many of whom, like Bouazizi, had fallen on hard times, due to the country's stagnant labor market, skyrocketing food prices and high-level political corruption. Within days, protesters had flooded the streets of Sidi Bouzid, an economically downtrodden region of the country. Within weeks, they had forced President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country, after 23 years of autocratic rule.

As the upheaval unfolded, it soon became clear that the Jasmine Revolution was not a typical uprising. Tunisians spread their revolutionary fervor to the digital sphere, where Ben Ali's regime had previously enjoyed unchallenged sovereignty. As scores of protesters clashed with police and demanded economic and social reform, an equally impassioned, if comparatively less tangible war was being waged online -- one involving not tear gas and demonstrators, but malware and rogue hackers.

Ben Ali's regime decided to reassert its control over the media during the upheaval by launching a cyber attack against some of Tunisia's most outspoken critics. Within a few hours of the large-scale crackdown, the government's targeted phishing campaign effectively muzzled a select group of online activists, leading to the arrests of influential bloggers and dissidents.

This time, however, the government's online gag order met new resistance from an unexpected source: Anonymous.

Anonymous Launches 'Operation Tunisia'

The notorious 'hacktivist' collective launched its 'Operation Tunisia' retaliatory strike in early January, after the Tunisian government blocked access to WikiLeaks and WikiLeaks-related news. Anonymous had already garnered international attention for its distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on companies that had severed ties with WikiLeaks, including MasterCard, Visa and PayPal. With OpTunisia, however, Anonymous took aim not at a corporation or individual, but at an entire state -- and one that was on the brink of collapse.

As the operation unfolded, the scope of Anonymous's agenda gradually extended beyond a mere defense of Julian Assange's whistleblowing organization. After hacktivists began collaborating with Tunisian free-speech activists, the organization decided to orchestrate a bona fide crusade, not in the name of Assange, but in the name of the Tunisian people. "We did initially take an interest in Tunisia because of WikiLeaks," an 'Anon' told Al-Jazeera. "But as more Tunisians have joined they care more about the general internet censorship there, so that's what it has become."

The group's swift DDoS attack successfully brought down a collection of government websites, including those of the president, prime minister, ministry of foreign affairs and stock exchange. Anonymous even managed to plaster an open letter across the homepage of the prime minister's site. The hacktivists later posted a series of graphic videos to YouTube, in the hopes of exposing the horrors of the Tunisian struggle.

It didn't take long for the Tunisian regime to retaliate by arresting a group of highly visible activists, including a Tunisian rapper who wrote a searingly critical song called "President, Your People Are Dead." According to Reporters Without Borders, the dissidents were detained a few days after Anonymous's strike, and were interrogated about any involvement with the attack.

The regime eventually regained control over its various Web platforms, but its online dominion was short-lived. On January 14th, Ben Ali dissolved his government and fled the country -- not, of course, because of anything Anonymous did, but because of what the Tunisian people did. Nevertheless, the group's digital involvement in a very real national crisis may mark a turning point in both cyber-warfare and online mobilization.

"Cyber guerrilla warfare" is the term that cyber-security expert Charles Dodd used to describe Anonymous's pro-WikiLeaks attacks, when speaking to Reuters in December. "They attack from the shadows and they have no fear of retaliation. There are no rules of engagement in this kind of emerging warfare." Anonymous proved with its initial DDoS attack that it can be effective in retaliating against tyrannical cyber law. Whether it can effect real change, however, remains to be seen.

The Aftermath

It's virtually impossible, at this fragile stage of the Tunisian narrative, to isolate Anonymous's impact on this turn of events -- if, that is, it had any impact at all. Paula Mejia, an American journalist living in Tunis, points out that Anonymous's operations were still dependent upon information flowing across social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter -- both of which played a larger, more practical role in spreading information among everyday Tunisians on the ground.

"I, like many other Tunisians, got all of my information from Facebook and Twiiter," Mejia wrote in an e-mail to Switched, adding that most news outlets were a good "two days behind" the updates she received on her Twitter feed. Facebook, meanwhile, played a particularly crucial role in helping local militias identify members of pro-Ben Ali police, who often traveled in unmarked SUVs. "I would say most elements of the rebel police were identified via Facebook." By comparison, she argues, Anonymous's role on the physical front lines of the Jasmine Revolution was minimal.

Mejia, who specializes in Middle Eastern and North African politics, acknowledges that the threat of Anonymous-esque attacks could theoretically force oppressive regimes to think twice about cracking down on the Web. But she doesn't think the tactic alone will be as successful in other Middle Eastern countries, where free speech hacktivists would have to overcome a deeply ingrained political and cultural mentality on media censorship -- a mentality that seems to persist even in a post-Ben Ali Tunisia.

Anonymous certainly didn't bring down the Tunisian government, and it may not have even altered the landscape of the Tunisian media. But its digital-collective involvement in an intrinsically domestic conflict was undeniably a first. Inspired by the struggles of a repressed Tunisian citizenry, a stateless, international group of free-speech advocates took it upon themselves to engage in a still-undefined form of guerilla warfare. Their tactics are unproven, and their success is undetermined.

Tags: anonymous, facebook, features, hacktivism, hactivists, jasmine revolution, JasmineRevolution, operation tunisia, OperationTunisia, optunisia, President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, PresidentZineAlAbidineBenAli, socialnetworking, twitter, wikileaks