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A mysterious online collective known only as 'Anonymous' has declared war on the Church of Scientology. Nicky Woolf tracks them down to find out why, and how.
On January 14 of this year, the Church of Scientology - allegedly - applied pressure to the video hosting website YouTube.com to remove the video of a speech by high-profile Scientologist Tom Cruise. According to The Economist: "The star appears to discuss his beliefs with a degree of incoherence and exaggeration that might lead some to question Scientology's effects on its adherents' sanity."
The Church of Scientology said that the tape was "the stolen video of an internal church event," and yelled copyright. YouTube quickly - some have said suspiciously quickly - removed the video.
On January 21, a mysterious group calling itself "Anonymous" posted a video to YouTube which constituted a declaration of war. Spoken in an artificial, computer-simulated voice, it begins: "Hello, leaders of Scientology. We are Anonymous. Over the years, we have been watching you. Your campaigns of misinformation, your suppression of dissent, your litigious nature, all of these things have caught our eye."
It continues "Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed."
It ends: "Knowledge is free. We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us."
At around the same time, The Church of Scientology's home page was attacked by hackers, quickly succumbed to the onslaught, and went offline. After one week, Anonymous' YouTube declaration had racked up more than a million hits, and has since more than doubled that. The war had begun.
On February 10, Anonymous stepped its game up a notch and emerged from the internet realm. A massive international protest was held outside every single Scientology church and centre in the world, including the 'dianetics centre' on Hull Road in York, 5 minutes walk from the University.
The largest protests, in London and Los Angeles, boasted more than 500 protesters. York's was a little more modest, at around 20, but nonetheless the speed with which Anonymous has mobilised the grassroots against Scientology, and gone from a niche collective of web-users to a powerful global movement is cause for thought.
The anonymity aspect is not just for show. Nobody on the forums where Anonymous hangs out goes by their real names, and everyone is careful to protect personal details. Speaking to members of the group, the first thing that strikes me is how seriously everyone takes this. There is real fear of retaliation from Scientology. Anonymity is the first line of defence.
If Anonymous is an army, the message-boards at Enturbulation.org are its unofficial headquarters. I log on, and post a message on the York section. Fairly soon, I receive a call on my mobile, number withheld. Half-expecting a computer-modulated voice, I am caught short by a sensible, slightly nervous north-midlands accent.
As a matter of course, he tells me, he will not give me his name. His 'Anonymous' name, his online alias, is 'AnotherYorkAnon', and he is a final-year student at the University of York. He has been a member of Anonymous for "probably a couple of years now"; a lot longer than most. I ask him why such secrecy is needed; "In the case of people criticising the Church of Scientology, they have what's called the fair game policy," he tells me. "I believe they are alleged to have revoked it for over 30 years now, but there are very, very firmly documented cases."
"The fair game If you are a vocal critic of Scientology," he continues, "they are allowed within their organisation to harm you in any way they see fit. Sometimes physically, or sometimes they try and do it through court cases and having you arrested."
I am as familiar as anyone else with the Church of Scientology's litigious reputation; it's been well represented in the media. I had not, however, heard of this more sinister aspect to the Church. I ask AnotherYorkAnon how much is known about the darker side of Scientology. "There have been some very high-profile cases of deaths and suicides," he informs me. "If you get into the cult even without knowing what's going on then you can be in very real danger. They tend to avoid contact in any way with people outside the cult. There's generally their aim; to try and isolate the members of their organisation so they don't have contact with the outside world."
After our conversation, I did some did some digging online. It seems that Anonymous' fears are not without base. There are an awful lot of horror-stories associated with both membership of and opposition to the Church of Scientology. Some of them had impressive evidence backing them up; U.S. Coroner's reports, court transcripts, photographic evidence and several corroborating eyewitness reports.
Perhaps the best-documented case, and that most often cited by Anonymous' campaigners, is that of the death of a young Scientologist, Lisa McPherson, in apparent captivity at a Scientology facility, in 1998. The Church of Scientology in Clearwater was charged with practicing medicine without a licence and criminal neglect, but these charges were dropped in 2000 on a legal technicality.
Later, I speak to another member of Anonymous. 'Nick', in his early twenties, from Leeds, was a new addition to the ranks. "I've known about Scientology and their crimes for a long time," he tells me. "But it's been there's never been anything big organised before, especially in the UK. When it became apparent that this was going to be a worldwide thing and that it is going to make a difference, I decided "I've got to get in on this, I've got to help out."
'Nick' is also very careful about his identity. He, too, is scared of retaliation from the Church. "I don't know any Anonymous in real life. I think that's a good thing; we are starting to get reports of people getting fair-gamed because of Sunday's protest and I certainly wouldn't want to be targeted," he says. "They have started to dismantle the lives of some people they have identified. There's one guy's lost his job over it; Scientology wrote to his workplace telling them that he'd been inciting hate-riots. There's another guy who's now got a van parked outside his house with people coming to and from it, taking pictures of his house."
The Church of Scientology have attempted to hit back at Anonymous in the media as well as in person. In a statement to Florida newspaper the St. Petersburg Times on February 8, the Church accused Anonymous of "perpetrating religious hate crimes against churches of Scientology and individual Scientologists for no reason other than religious bigotry."
The statement accuses Anonymous of "harassment, including threats of violence in phone calls," and compares them to a "terrorist or hate group". It says that Anonymous has "publicly proclaimed its guiding materials to be the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf.
Anonymous, by its very nature, is a leaderless, anarchistic collective; AnotherYorkAnon describes it succinctly as "a herd of cats." There is no command structure, formal or informal. This in mind, the Church of Scientology's accusations are difficult to credit. That Anonymous could 'publicly proclaim' its guiding materials to be anything at all, let alone Mein Kampf, is cast aside by any members I ask with offended derision.
Anonymous' answer to Scientology's accusations is agreed by consensus, rather than issued by authority, and then sent to me. "The Church of Scientology refuses to acknowledge that we are uninterested in physical violence against their members," it says, and continues: "Anonymous strongly condemns any illegal action against the Church of Scientology or other religious organizations."
"Not only do we address these concerns in a number of statements, but our actions speak for themselves, as has been made clear during the global wave of demonstrations... The Church of Scientology will find that the only thing their parishioners need protection from is the Church of Scientology itself."
It is irrefutable that the protests on the tenth were, without exception, executed entirely peacefully. "Everyone considers it amazing how successful it was," 'AnotherYorkAnon' tells me. "There was not a single arrest, police caution or any negative publicity. It all went perfectly to plan."
I speak to 'Jambob', a 15-year-old Anonymous who organised the York protest. "I made sure that the police knew that we were coming," he said. "I made sure that no-one was going to mess about and do something illegal, generally just saw that things ran smoothly."
This is what seems to be unique about Anonymous. While the Church of Scientology has branded them "terrorists", they have in fact been extremely careful to maintain a strict non-violence policy. Their protest instructions say: "Don't be confrontational towards existing members of the CoS," and "Stay cool, especially when harassed. You are an ambassador of Anonymous. Although individuals trying to disrupt your demonstration will get on your nerves, you must not lose your temper."
'Nick' describes himself as a part of "sort of the ranks" of the group, as distinct from "the group that set up the denial-of-service attacks", the hackers who took down the Scientology website.
'AnotherYorkAnon' also distances himself from them. "There actually seems quite a divide amongst Anonymous as to whether that was the right thing to do or not," he tells me.
'TheQueue', one of the staff on the Enturbulation.org forums, sums up the quandary for me.
"Anyone could be part of Anonymous, including somebody who overtly disagrees with us. How can we be sure any action attributed to Anonymous isn't the work of the Church of Scientology or, perhaps more likely, just some kid that wants to get a laugh?"
"As a result Anonymous doesn't take credit for anything," he continues. "The very concept of our group means that individual actions are outside of the group and consequences - good or bad - happen only to that individual. The protests this weekend were due to the individuals involved, not some pseudo-identity of Anonymous."
'TheQueue' is keen to downplay the hacker attacks. "There's no organisation or "leaders" that would coordinate these actions. In addition the original attacks didn't require much skill - a DDoS attack is the online equivalent of too many phones calling a 1-800 number and overloading its capacity."
That doesn't mean that Anonymous doesn't have that sting in its tail. "there certainly are some technically-minded individuals who are capable of attacking websites like that," 'AnotherYorkAnon' says carefully.
It might not even be needed. 'Nick' tells me that the February 10 protests had more than just an external effect on the Church of Scientology. "We're already getting word from people inside Scientology that it is causing a lot of dissent; which is our aim."
Intrigued, I ask him what he means, and his voice takes on an excited, almost proud edge. "Well, there's certain people within Scientology who can't get out of it for certain reasons, but they do keep contact with critics of Scientology. There's someone - I can't say her name - who's been a long-time critic, and has been posting some letters and emails that she's been receiving from Scientologists still within the cult. They're discussing things like what exactly it is that Anonymous were protesting. They've been told various things, and they know that they're not getting the full story. They're trying to get some information but they're being blocked by the higher-ups."
Where does Anonymous go from here? There are already more protests planned for March 15, which are speculated to at least double the participation of the February 10 protest. I ask 'AnotherYorkAnon' what he predicts for the future of Anonymous, and he pauses. "It depends on the results of the 15th what happens next, really. It is very difficult to predict what's going to happen in a month's time." 'Nick' is more upbeat: "From what we're hearing, this has dealt a huge blow to Scientology already, but it's going to take years to get down to the nitty-gritty; the people who really need help, the people whose lives have been completely destroyed by Scientology. There are people so deep within the cult that they cannot get out at all." He pauses briefly for breath. "They're the people that we really need to get to."