Church Website knocked offline: Was Anonymous involved?

Hacker collective had previously denied that its members were seeking to attack site over Westboro Baptist Church's controversial views

The main Web site of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka was unavailable this morning, just days after the Anonymous hacking collective had denied reports that its members were seeking to attack the site over disagreements with the church's practices.

Also unavailable this morning were several 'sister sites' affiliated with the church. Members of the WBC church are known for their strident anti-gay views and for protests at funerals of slain military personnel and others.

A letter released last week claiming to be from the Anonymous group had warned WBC members that the church's web site would be attacked if members did not 'cease and desist' their protest activities. The open letter was posted on AnonNews, a site used by Anonymous members to upload news on the group's activities.

However, a note posted on the site earlier this week said the initial warning was not posted by Anonymous members, and that the threat was a hoax.

It was not immediately clear whether Anoymous caused the denial of serice attack on the church Web site this morning. There has been no response yet to a Computerworld request for comment from Anonymous members.

The WBC also didn't immediately return a request for comment.

However, in an open letter posted by the church earlier this week challenged Anonymous to "Bring It."

"Anonymous is warring with God; very stupid for little boys claiming to be so smart," the letter noted.

Anonymous, which prefers being referred to as a collective rather than as a group, is comprised of an unknown number of volunteer hackers operating largely without a central command or leader.

The collective has been in the news quite a bit recently, most notably for its attacks against HBGary after the security firm's CEO, Aaron Barr, said he had discovered the identities of several Anonymous members and planned to disclose them at RSA Conference in San Francisco earlier this month.

Prior to those attacks, Anonymous members have been associated with several distributed denial of service attacks most recently in connection with the WikiLeaks disclosures and the civil unrest in Egypt and elsewhere.

In the case of WBC, it remains unclear whether Anonymous caused the shutdown of the church site, or if it was simply a coincidence.

The original open letter to WBC dated Feb. 16 had warned church members to cease and desist in their protests and the "inimitable bigotry and intolerant fanaticism" they represented. A failure to comply would result in attacks against the church's Web site causing damage that "neither your institution nor your congregation will ever be able to fully recover," the letter had warned.

However, the news release from earlier this week downplayed the open letter and claimed it was a hoax. "Just because it was posted on AnonNews doesn't mean every single Anon is in agreement."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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