Monthly Archives: September 2011

Sabotaging Iran’s Nuclear Program, quiet, cyber, with few fingerprints

Iran’s star-crossed nuclear and energy programs have suffered a rash of setbacks, mishaps and catastrophes in the past two years.  Assassins killed three scientists with links to Iran’s nuclear programs. The Stuxnet computer worm that infected computers worldwide zeroed in on a single target in Iran, devices that can make weapons-usable uranium.  Dozens of unexplained explosions hit the country’s gas pipelines. Iran’s first nuclear power plant suffered major equipment failures as technicians struggle to bring it online.  Has Iran just been unlucky? Probably not.  The chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Fereidoun Abbasi, told journalists at a meeting in Vienna last week that the United States was supporting an Israeli assassination campaign against his scientists. His comments came almost a year after motorcyclists attached a bomb to the door of his car in Tehran. He and his wife barely escaped.  As for the three slayings, Iranian President Ahmadinejad told The Associated Press that the killers had been caught and confessed to being “trained in the occupied lands by the Zionists.” He accused the International Atomic Energy Agency of being under U.S. control and said the watchdog agency had “illegally and unethically” released the names of Iran’s nuclear researchers, making them targets.  While Israel and Britain won’t discuss Iran’s charges, the U.S. has denied any role in the slayings.  “We condemn any assassination or attack on a person — on an innocent person,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said after the latest killing in July. “We were not involved.”Former U.S. officials point out that assassinations are outlawed by the U.S., which condones drone strikes against terrorists as acts of war against combatants.  Yet there is little doubt that the Obama administration is pursuing a program of high-tech sabotage to disrupt Tehran’s suspected weapons-related nuclear efforts.

“I have no doubt that the U.S. and other countries were behind industrial sabotage aimed at the program of concern,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department official who’s now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.  [F] ormer officials said, the U.S. and its allies have ramped up covert actions aimed at slowing Iran’s nuclear progress toward a bomb.  Ex-officials said the U.S. has been careful to target only those facilities suspected of playing a role in weapons work.   One former senior intelligence official said that the U.S. considered a scheme to use a burst of electromagnetic energy to knock out power to one suspected Iranian weapons-related site but rejected the plan because of the risk of causing a widespread power outage. The former official would only speak about classified matters on condition of anonymity.

The suspected sabotage campaign is widely seen as an alternative to military confrontation with Iran, which some experts say could have disastrous consequences for the Middle East.A 2010 U.S. diplomatic memorandum published by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks quoted a German government official as saying that a program of “covert sabotage” against Iran, including explosions, computer hacking and engineered accidents, “would be more effective than a military strike whose effects in the region could be devastating.”The memo did not cite any specifics.  While the fact is rarely discussed, the U.S. may be the world’s leader in high-tech industrial sabotage.

According to an official CIA history, the Reagan administration was convinced that the Soviet Union was engaged in the wholesale theft of Western technological secrets. It arranged for the shipment of doctored computer chips, turbines and blueprints to the USSR that disrupted production at chemical plants and a tractor factory. When the KGB obtained plans for NASA’s Space Shuttle, the CIA said it made certain it was for a rejected design.  Thomas C. Reed, a member of the National Security Council in the Reagan administration, wrote in his 2004 book that during the Cold War the CIA tampered with the computer code embedded in Canadian components of a new trans-Siberian gas pipeline system. In 1982, a surge in pressure caused a three-megaton blast in the Siberian forest that was visible from space.

Washington has accused Tehran of sponsoring terrorist groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, of sending arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan and aiding al-Qaida’s leadership in Pakistan. The U.S.-supported Iran Human Rights Documentation Center has said that Iranian intelligence agents have killed more than 160 expatriate political activists abroad.  “We’ve been in a contest with the Iranians now for 30 years, and this is just one phase of it,” said James Lewis, a former State Department official and an expert on technology and security. “The Iranians do things that appeal to them, and they are noisy and physical and explosive.”  The U.S., he said, has preferred quieter methods that leave few fingerprints. “If I was Iran, I would wonder if my stuff would work,” Lewis said.

The U.S. and its allies have avoided discussing the suspected sabotage campaign publicly. At least until recently, Iran has seldom raised the issue and even then has provided few details.  For both sides, the most sensitive issue is the question of who is killing Iran’s nuclear scientists.  Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer now at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank, said a faction within Iran’s government might have ordered the assassinations. He said one researcher supported Iran’s persecuted opposition, while the others may have been suspected of spying for the West.  Other former officials and diplomats said the killings appear to be an effort by Iran’s adversaries to disrupt its nuclear weapons-related work….”If the state and progress of the Iranian nuclear program depends on what is walking around inside the heads of one or two key officials, then we’ve got a lot less to worry about this program than most of the discourse would lead us to believe,” said Paul Pillar, a former CIA national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia.

Former officials and experts generally agree that the Stuxnet worm was an effort to sabotage Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges, which can be used to make fuel for reactors or weapons-usable material for atomic bombs. Western experts estimate that the malware destroyed 1,000 centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz plant last year.  Some former U.S. officials said that Israel’s Unit 8200, the Defense Force’s electronic intelligence service, probably led the development of Stuxnet, with the help of the U.S. and perhaps other nations. Others said they suspected the U.S. was the chief developer of what has been called the world’s first cyberweapon of mass destruction.

German Stuxnet expert Ralph Langner said in a speech this spring that such advanced software must have been created by what he called a cybersuperpower. “There is only one,” said Langner. “And that is the United States.”  Art Keller, a retired CIA officer who worked in the Middle East and South Asia, said Stuxnet’s self-destruct mechanism, its painstaking focus on a single target and other fail-safe features all suggest the program was screened by U.S. government lawyers concerned about limiting collateral damage.  “These are all the hallmarks of a U.S. covert action,” he said.

Insiders are divided on whether the West has conducted sabotage operations against Iran’s oil and gas pipeline networks.

DOUGLAS BIRCH, Iran’s nuclear setbacks: More than just bad luck?, Associated Press, Sept. 24, 2011

Role of Western Special Forces in Libyan Civil War

Throughout the Libyan conflict the focus has been on the large-scale air campaign, especially in destroying Qadhafi’s command and control capabilities as well as aiding – in a limited capacity –rebel ground advances. But on the ground an equally large-scale effort has been undertaken by a range of international special forces (SF). Through an extensive analysis of open source material, includingmedia reports, individual sightings, videos and photographs from the start of the campaign to date, this section looks at the likely evolution, role and importance of coalition special forces in Libya, and in particular how rebel forces may have been organised and assisted by special forces.

The earliest known activities by special forces took place from 23/24 February when a number of countries decided to undertake evacuation operations to protect their citizens, including oil workers, from the emerging conflict in Libya. At the same time, it is reported that the UK and France entered Benghazi and Tobruk to try and build links with the rebels and understand who the ‘rebels’ actually were (a traditional human intelligence – HUMINT – function).  These forces were also used to assess the effects of coalition air strikes on Qadhafi’s regime.  It took most of March for relationships with the rebels to be built. This is because of the significant number of rebel groupings across the West of the country which were detached from the National Transitional Council.

The coalition’s need to engage with this larger number of dispersed groups between East and West required an increase in the number of deployed forces…..As the conflict developed the range of tasks that needed to be undertaken by special forces began to increase. In addition to building relations and liaising with rebel forces, special forces also had to secure key critical infrastructure and weapons sites (including those housing remnants of Weapons of Mass Destruction) around the country. French forces, for instance, were very active in the south-west desert area in April.5.  This increase in the range of tasks did not match the relatively small increase in special forces numbers made by the UK and France in March, particularly, as awareness grew of the poor state of rebel organisation, discipline and capability. Coupled with political concern about an emerging stalemate, there was a growing need for more extensive operational mentoring and training of the rebels and the provision of specialist equipment.

Arab special forces played the central role in the planning for Tripoli.

Excerpt from , Accidental Heroes, Britain, France and the Libya Operation, An Interim Rusi Royal United Services Institute) Campaign Report, Sept. 2011

 

Why They Love Drones, industry insights

Global spending on drones is forecast to nearly double in the next decade, growing to $11.3 billion a year — and suggesting a near-$95 billion market over the next 10 years, according to industry research firm Teal Group.  Big-hitters in the market include Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, as well as privately-held General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Textron Systems.

As companies develop next-generation UAV features to cater to their primary defense market, their efforts are focused on two areas: weaponization and intelligence.  “Historically, we have seen larger aircraft like the General Atomics’ Predator as a weaponized variant. We’re seeing a trend of weaponization down to smaller classes gaining momentum,” said Michael Lewis, an analyst at Lazard Capital.  Textron’s Shadow unmanned system is another example of an armed drone. Among smaller UAVs, AeroVironment recently won a $5 million contract from the U.S. Army for its Switchblade.   As the United States draws down its troop presence in battlegrounds from Iraq to Afghanistan, so the need for intelligence gathering capability increases, driving demand for the Predator and Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk.  “With UAVs, you can do more with less as they act as a force-multiplier,” Michael Ciarmoli of KeyBanc Capital Markets said.

Though fewer troops on the ground may mean less need for the hand-held UAVs carried by some soldiers, the Defense Department will still buy the small UAVs as it has yet to complete its inventory requirements.AeroVironment, founded by aircraft designer Paul MacCready in 1971, is known for its focus on small UAVs, but the California-based firm has recently branched out into electric vehicle charging stations.  The company is developing its Shrike brand of ultra-small UAV, which weighs just 5 pounds and can fit in a backpack. Shrike will focus on surveillance and intelligence gathering.  “AeroVironment’s positioning as the sole-source supplier of small unmanned aerial systems to the Department of Defense gives it a protected niche in the defense market,” said BB&T Capital Markets analyst Jeremy Devaney.

U.S. drone makers have a technological edge over international peers and could be looking at lucrative export contracts, though these are often out of reach because of strict rules on arms exports.  The economic argument to help sensitive arms sales may gain traction as campaigning for the 2012 U.S. presidential elections kicks off against a backdrop of a 9 percent unemployment rate.  There’s also tougher competition from foreign countries, especially Israel and China.  In a time of slower growth in the U.S. market, companies can be expected to push sales in international markets,” said Philip Finnegan, a Teal Group analyst.  The Obama administration has begun consulting Congress on plans to sell Global Hawk spy planes to South Korea, a Reuters report has said. Such a deal would need a waiver of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a voluntary arms control pact involving at least 34 countries.  Both surveillance and armed U.S. drones, which have been widely deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, have received strong interest from Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia and nuclear neighbors India and Pakistan, among others.  AeroVironment, AAI, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics have principally sold their UAVs to NATO allies. Exports make up just 7 percent of AeroVironment’s sales, and 6 percent of Northrop’s.

While U.S. authorities’ concern is more about the transfer of advanced sensor capabilities abroad, UAV makers would at least be able to export airframes, plus maybe sensor and weapon suites approved for foreign sales.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency that oversees foreign military sales is working on pre-approved lists of countries that would qualify to buy drones with certain capabilities.  Meantime, NATO sales might provide some relief. “As our NATO partners attempt to standardize their weapons portfolios more in line with what the U.S. uses, we will see more sales of systems such as AeroVironment’s Puma and Raven UAVs,” said Lazard’s Lewis.  “Three years out, AeroVironment will be selling more internationally than they are today.”

A potential growth area for UAVs is in commercial markets, where there is increasing demand for law enforcement, exploration, disaster recovery and border security.  In the United States, however, prospects are some way off unless the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) opens up domestic airspace for commercial UAV operations.  “Airspace restrictions will play an important role in how quickly these new opportunities become reality,” said Lindsay Voss at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.  “When these two obstacles are overcome, the possibilities for the global UAV industry are endless,” she said, referring to the export rules and FAA restrictions.

Soham Chatterjee and Bijoy Anandoth Koyitty, Drone makers seek out new targets, Reuters, Sept. 23, 2011

US Spies against Pakistan Spies, drones and attacks

A US drone strike in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt on Friday[Sept. 23, 2011] killed at least six militants including four foreigners and destroyed a compound, security officials said. Two missiles fired by the unmanned aircraft hit a house in the village of Khushali Turikhel, 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of Miranshah, the main town in the lawless North Waziristan tribal district, security officials told AFP.  “The US drone fired two missiles which hit a house. Two locals and four militants of central Asian origin have been killed,” a Pakistani security official said. The official based in Peshawar said militants were using the house as a compound, which was completely destroyed.  Two intelligence officials based in Miranshah confirmed the attack and the number of casualties, adding that three militants whose identities were not yet clear were wounded in the strike.  Although the United States does not publicly confirm drone attacks, its military and the CIA in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy the unmanned Predator aircraft in the region.

North Waziristan is the headquarters of the Haqqani leadership and the main militant bastion in the semi-autonomous tribal belt.  The Haqqani network is considered the deadliest enemy of US troops in eastern Afghanistan. It was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani and is run by his son, Sirajuddin, both designated “global terrorists” by Washington.  The United States blames it over some of the most spectacular attacks in Afghanistan, such as last week’s 19-hour siege in Kabul and the 2009 killing of seven CIA agents, and accuses Pakistani spies of having ties to the group.  In an unprecedented condemnation of Pakistan the US military’s top officer Admiral Mike Mullen said this week that the country’s main intelligence agency the ISI was actively supporting Haqqani network militants.  Pakistan has reacted angrily to the US allegations, saying they are “not acceptable” and warning that Washington stands to lose a vital ally.

Drone attacks are unpopular among many Pakistanis, who oppose the alliance with Washington and who are sensitive to perceived violations of sovereignty.   Around two dozen drone strikes have been reported in Pakistan since elite US forces killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in a suburban home near Pakistan’s main military academy in Abbottabad, close to the capital, on May 2.  Pakistani-US relations sank to a new nadir after the unilateral American raid that killed bin Laden but in recent months had appeared to recover slightly.  Washington’s pressure on Islamabad to launch a decisive military campaign in North Waziristan, as Pakistan has conducted elsewhere in the tribal belt, has so far fallen on deaf ears.

US drone kills six militants in Pakistan: officials, Agence France Presse, Sept. 24, 2011

Private Satellite Reveals Preparation for Conflict

Sudan has deployed a heavily armoured brigade along a road leading to an armed opposition group’s stronghold in Blue Nile State and may be poised to launch an attack, a satellite monitoring activist group said on Friday {Sept. 23, 2011}.  The SPLM-North opposition group said the Sudanese air force had conducted attacked an area in Blue Nile where fighting broke out between the army and opposition earlier this month.Washington-based Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) said at least 3,000 troops were “pointed south” along the road to Kurmuk, a town near the Ethiopian border which is seen as a SPLM-North stronghold.

Satellite images captured on September 21 and analysed by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, showed a “wall of armour” near Dindiro, a town around 64 kilometers (40 miles) from Kurmuk, said SSP which was founded by actor George Clooney and other activists.  The group said it had identified what appeared to be main battle tanks, towed artillery, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers and troop transporters, apparently accompanied by six Hind attack helicopters.  The Sudanese army could not be reached for comment.

Events in Blue Nile are difficult to verify because most foreign media cannot travel there and aid agencies complain of a lack of access to fighting areas.  On Thursday, new clashes broke out in Blue Nile’s neighbouring state of South Kordofan where the army is also fighting SPLM-North groups.  Both border states are home to large populations which sided with South Sudan during decades of civil war and found themselves in north Sudan after the South became independent on July 9 under a 2005 peace deal.  Khartoum accuses its former civil war foe of supporting the armed opposition in the two border states. Juba denies the charges.

Excerpt, Sudan deploys troops, tanks in border state: group, Reuters Africa, Sep 24, 2011

 

Who is the Boss, CIA or the JSOC? Drones in Yemen

The Obama administration has significantly increased the frequency of drone strikes and other air attacks against the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen in recent months amid rising concern about political collapse there.  Some of the the strikes, carried out by the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), have been focused in the southern part of the country, where insurgent forces have for the first time conquered and held territory as the Yemeni government continues to struggle against escalating opposition to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule.

Unlike in Pakistan, where the CIA has presidential authorization to launch drone strikes at will, each U.S. attack in Yemen — and those being conducted in nearby Somalia, most recently on Thursday near the southern port city of Kismayo — requires White House approval, senior administration officials said.  The officials, who were not authorized to discuss the matter on the record, said intended targets must be drawn from an approved list of key members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula deemed by U.S. intelligence officials to be involved in planning attacks against the West. White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan last week put their number at “a couple of dozen, maybe.”

Although several unconfirmed strikes each week have been reported by local media in Yemen and Somalia, the administration has made no public acknowledgment of the escalated campaign, and officials who discussed the increase declined to provide numbers.  The heightened air activity coincides with the administration’s determination this year that AQAP, as the Yemen-based group is known, poses a more significant threat to the United States than the core al-Qaeda group based in Pakistan. The administration has also concluded that AQAP has recruited at least a portion of the main insurgent group in Somalia, al-Shabab, to its anti-Western cause.

From its initial months in office, the Obama administration has debated whether to extend the air attacks that have proved so effective in Pakistan to the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. Military and intelligence officials have long argued in favor of attacks against al-Shabab camps in Somalia, which have been under overhead surveillance for years. Other officials have questioned the legal and moral justification for intervening in what, until recently, has been a largely domestic conflict.

The administration has said its legal authority to conduct such strikes, whether with fixed-wing planes, cruise missiles or drones, derives from the 2001 congressional resolution authorizing attacks against al-Qaeda and protection of the U.S. homeland, as well as the international law of self-defense.“The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al-Qaeda as being restricted solely to ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan,” Brennan said in remarks prepared for delivery Friday night at Harvard Law School. “We reserve the right to take unilateral action if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to take the necessary actions themselves.”….

In the Yemeni capital Sanaa, thousands of anti-government protesters have been camping out in what is known as Change Square for several months, demanding an end to Saleh’s rule. The camp has remained quiet for weeks, but Reuters, citing doctors, reported Saturday that soldiers opened fire near the camp overnight and wounded eight protesters. The troops shot in the air to stop demonstrators from trying to expand the area of protest.   As the political conflict drags on, concern has increased over insurgent expansion and future cooperation with whatever government emerges in Yemen…..

Until May, 2011-

How the United States Funds the Insurgency, Afghanistan

Trucking contractors who pay off the Taliban, warlords and government officials to ensure safe passage for U.S. military goods in Afghanistan do so because they believe they have no choice if they want to avoid attack, a senior military official told a congressional oversight panel Thursday (Sept. 15, 2011).  “Some of that money, for sure, is going to the insurgency,” Brig. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend said. “I can’t quantify how much is going to attacks against us. . . . I don’t think you can completely stop it, but we’ve got to minimize it.”  Townsend and Pentagon officials told a House subcommittee that a new trucking contract, which goes into effect Friday, will decrease the level of corruption through wider competition, increased vetting and improved military oversight, along with a “code of ethics” for the contractors.

The new contract is worth about $1 billion over the next year. Under the contract it replaces, tens of millions of dollars had been diverted to “malign actors,” according to congressional and military investigators.  The officials offered no assurances that the payoffs or wider corruption can be eliminated. But they said Afghan corruption is endemic and the need to supply U.S. troops is critical.  “As bad as it is, it would be worse if we had U.S. personnel guarding convoys,” Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Gary Motsek said. “The body count would be unacceptable.”

Nearly all of the supply convoys — which transport more than 70 percent of all food, fuel, construction material and weapons to the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops across Afghanistan — are guarded by private Afghan security companies.  Military concern over payoffs first arose more than two years ago, when U.S. army investigators estimated that the going rate for protection was $1,500 to $2,500 per truck. But the military did not launch formal investigations into the issue until congressional committees conducted their own inquiries last year.  Military investigators concluded in May that U.S. funds had flowed to criminals and insurgents through four of the eight companies that were part of the earlier contract and that six of the eight were associated with “fraudulent paperwork and behavior,” including profiteering, money laundering and kickbacks to Afghan government and police officials….

Lawmakers appeared far from satisfied. Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.) said military investigations had identified more than $360 million in overall U.S. contract funds diverted to “warlords, power brokers, insurgents, and criminal patronage networks” in Afghanistan. A separate government commission had estimated this month that as much as $60 billion had been lost to waste, fraud and abuse.

Tierney and others also questioned the military’s zeal in pursuing contract abusers. Last December, the U.S. command in Afghanistan announced that it had suspended Watan Risk Group, the major security subcontractor for trucking convoys, for diverting funds and violating weapons regulations. …Last month, however, the military overturned Watan’s debarment and that of one of Watan’s security subcontractors, Haji Ruhullah. Ruhullah, widely considered a leading warlord in southern Afghanistan, acknowledged making payoffs, but he was excused by the army’s legal department on grounds that Watan had not explained contract rules to him and that his inability to speak English prevented him from reading the rules himself.

The General Accountability Office  has released a report saying that the departments of Defense and State and the U.S. Agency for International Development had failed to comply with laws and agreements requiring them to keep accurate count of the number of contractors employed in Iraq and Afghanistan and of the money distributed to them.  Data compiled last year by all three had “significant limitations,” including an underreporting of “at least $4 billion in contract obligations,” the GAO said.

Excerpts, Karen DeYoung, Corrupt Afghan trucking for U.S. military probed by Congress, Washington Post, September 15, 2011

 

Not Only for Cutting Trees, Chainsaws, Afghanistan

The enemy has figured out the strategy here in Zhari (Afghanistan) but they have been unable to stop it. Day by day,( US) Task Force Spartan is constricting the Taliban battlespace…Task Force Spartan has been building combat outposts in the heart of enemy territory while conducting myriad other operations to kill the enemy, sap their willingness or desire to fight, and bring some order to this chaos.

Part of building new roads and outposts includes cutting down trees. Explosives are the chainsaw of war, and so naturally the troops have been cutting down trees with plastic explosives and detonation cord which thunder daily here. One might think that the fastest way to cut down a bunch of trees is to blow them up, but that’s not always true. Often the chainsaw is the tool of choice. The chainsaw method can be lighter and faster than using explosives. Importantly, when using explosives the civilians must be cleared out, but this is not so with a chainsaw. Importantly, too, before explosives can be used the troops must clear what they call a “BiP RAS.” (Blow in Place Restricted Air Space.) Our helicopters often fly so low that they can accidentally be blown out of the sky, or at least fragged, and obviously that is to be avoided. But the BiP RAS and other formalities also can take time, meaning our troops must stay in danger longer. On the other hand, our helicopter pilots don’t have to be warned about chainsaws.

Captain Doug Serota has been using chainsaws since he was a boy growing up in Alabama. When Captain Serota got his hands on a chainsaw, he stopped wasting time with explosives when possible. This reduces risks to his men, and frees time for other work. But like most everything, the chainsaw versus explosives question remains open. For instance, one of my tent mates, Sergeant Edward Wooden, has had to cross water here at night with explosives to blow down a tree. He stripped off his body armor, got across the water, quietly placed the explosives and slipped away. BOOM. Tree gone. The tree was large and would have required some time and much noise with a chainsaw, not to mention lights. In this neck of the woods a chainsaw is pretty much good for one thing: trees. Explosives, however, can be used for all sorts of tasks. In any case, the chainsaw in Captain Serota’s hands and the explosives in Sergeant Wooden’s hands have been knocking down a lot of trees. The Taliban are not happy to see their hiding places disappear.

Michael Yon, Chainsaws Reduce Risk of Injury to Troops in Afghanistan, FoxNews, Sept. 16, 2011

Not Anonymous Anymore, internet and the street

The rise of groups of geeks and hackers organized — however loosely — around a political agenda is a fairly new phenomenon, experts say. And combining such activism with more traditional forms of protest is perhaps a natural evolution.  “One of the big errors of our time is believing that what happens online is separate from what happens offline,” says Paul Levinson, author of New New Media and professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York.  He says there’s a long tradition of disrupting the activities of the establishment to make a point, and that Anonymous is drawing on that tradition on multiple fronts.

What Anonymous has done by joining its online and offline presence comes out of the flash-mob craze that started in 2003, says Virag Molnar, a sociology professor at the New School for Liberal Arts in New York.  “We’ve seen a huge evolution in the purposes that flash mobs have been used,” she says. “Some can be used for progressive purposes, but they can also be used for rioting, hooliganism or gang activity.”Flash mobs set up via Twitter and Facebook have appeared at BP gas stations to demonstrate against the company’s handling of the Gulf oil spill. In Switzerland, Greenpeace organized a flash mob in which more than 100 people pretended to drop dead to protest nuclear power.  Social media tools also were linked to riots this summer in Vancouver and across Britain.

Anonymous claimed responsibility last month for hacking into some 70 law enforcement websites, garnering “a massive amount of confidential information,” including emails and credit card numbers. The move was in retaliation for the FBI arrest of 16 suspects for their alleged involvement in the PayPal denial of service attack…

History of Anonymous operations:

2006: The loosely organized collective carries out some of its first major acts of online mayhem, including a distributed denial of service [DDoS] attack that disables the website of radio host Hal Turner, known for racially charged remarks.

2008: Anonymous launches Project Chanology in retaliation for the Church of Scientology’s demand that YouTube remove a church video interview of actor and Scientologist Tom Cruise. In addition to launching DDoS attacks against Scientology websites, followers wearing masks of Guy Fawkes turn out for street protests at church centers mostly in the U.S. and Europe.

2009: Following the Iranian presidential election, with its widespread accusations of vote-rigging, Anonymous launches a website supporting the Iranian Green Party with the aim of skirting official censorship.

2010: Anonymous launches a DDoS attack against Australian government websites in retaliation for Canberra’s plan to implement anti-child-pornography Internet filtering software.  The group launches Operation Payback in support of WikiLeaks and its embattled chief, Julian Assange. Denial of service attacks hit the websites of PayPal, MasterCard, Visa and Amazon.

2011: Anonymous launches various operations in support of the Arab Spring, including denial of service attacks and hacks against government websites in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordon and Morocco.

Operation BART draws followers into San Francisco train stations to protest the Bay Area Rapid Transit system’s decision to shut down cell phone service on the trains in an effort to quash an anti-police protest. Anonymous also hacks a BART website.

It has also spawned splinter groups such as Lulz Security (recently disbanded) and the Anti-Security Movement (still active) that have gone on to launch their own hacktivist attacks.   As the group’s name suggests, anonymity — particularly the kind that can be found in cyberspace — is important to many of its followers. Giving it up doesn’t come lightly. Members typically show up at protests sporting a mask in the likeness of the 16th century English radical Guy Fawkes.   Many Anons are in their 20s and 30s, but a few are in their 60s — the “grandfathers” of the movement….”  There is a sort of across-the-board free-speech sensibility that many Anons share, which many geeks and hackers share,” she says. “The libertarian label, though, ends at, ‘We believe in free speech.’ ”   While free speech and anti-censorship is a key part of the group’s ideology, there’s also a definite leftist and anti-capitalist strain in some Anons. “Beyond that,” she says, “it’s a pretty diverse lot.”…

Excerpt, Scott Neuman, Anonymous Comes Out In The Open, NPR, Sept. 16, 2011