The Rise and Fall of Jeremy Hammond: Enemy of the State

Page 4 of 6

One of those people who seemed drawn to the larger struggle was a hacker named Sabu. Born Hector Xavier Monsegur in 1983, he'd grown up in a family of drug dealers – both his father and his aunt went to prison for heroin trafficking in 1997 – and was raised by his grandmother Irma in the Jacob Riis projects of New York's Lower East Side. A husky, bookish kid, he'd never really fit in among the gangsters and street hustlers of his mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood, but he had a natural gift for computers, as well as a rebellious streak. At 14, around the age that Hammond was wowing the Apple "geniuses," Monsegur, whose family couldn't afford an Internet connection, had figured out a way to get on EarthLink for free and proceeded to teach himself Linux, Unix and open-source networking. When he was 16, he defaced several Puerto Rican government websites after a U.S. Navy live-fire exercise on the island of Vieques accidentally killed a local civilian. But he was also an opportunist.

Where Hammond saw hacking as a tool in the larger struggle, Monsegur saw hacking, and its legitimate counterpart, white-hat Internet security consulting, as a way out of the struggle he lived day to day. He craved "respect," as he frequently noted online, and as a kid had landed coveted spots in several New York City-run IT programs for underprivileged teens. In his early 20s, he'd freelanced for a Swedish Internet security firm and later worked for the peer-to-peer file-sharing company LimeWire. But by 2010, Monsegur, now 26 and the sole guardian of two small cousins he called his "daughters," was drifting, living on public assistance in the same projects in which he'd grown up. He sold marijuana on the street, and fenced stolen goods. He also began hacking for profit: stealing credit-card numbers to pay his bills, and hacking into an automotive-parts company, where he ordered four engines worth close to $3,500 for his cars, including a vintage Toyota AE86, which he named "Revolution."

Before long, Anonymous gave Monsegur a mission – he'd later say it was a movement he had been waiting for his entire life. Calling himself Sabu, he began working his way through the various Internet relay chats (IRCs) in Anonops, the IRC network where hacktivists gathered, into the smaller, private chat rooms where illegal actions were planned. When the Middle East exploded in January 2011, he eagerly took part in what Anonymous called the "Freedom Ops": waging war, from his computer, on the websites of the oppressive governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Bahrain. Yet, unlike Hammond, whose revolutionary ideology infused every aspect of his life, Sabu's nobility of purpose was limited. His main cause, now as always, was himself. "Sabu," one hacker later noted, "believes in Sabu."

FBI surveillance of Anonymous began, by most accounts, around 2010. "In the beginning, nobody in law enforcement even knew who Anonymous was," says one former member. "To the FBI, they'd just been this Scientology nuisance. So when Anonymous started coming out in support of Assange and Bradley Manning, they were really behind. They didn't understand the culture at all."

To help the government – and, he hoped, to win contracts for his firm, HBGary Federal – a digital-security analyst named Aaron Barr decided that he would figure out the secret "leadership" of Anonymous. In early 2011, after studying the group for weeks and lurking in Anonymous chat rooms, Barr drew up a 20-page document with the names and contact information of a number of people he believed formed Anonymous' central core. He then went public, telling a reporter from The Financial Times that he'd unlocked the mystery of Anonymous, which he intended to broadcast widely.

Though Barr's document turned out to be riddled with mistakes, Anonymous took his threat seriously. On Super Bowl Sunday, February 6th, 2011, Sabu and his crew, which called themselves the "Internet Feds," hacked into HBGary's website, Barr's Twitter account and also the company's e-mail database, extracting 68,000 e-mails, which they posted to popular file-sharing site the Pirate Bay. Within a day, news of the hack was everywhere – Steven Colbert famously devoted a segment of The Colbert Report to the hack: "To put that in hacker terms," he said, "Anonymous is a hornet's nest, and Barr said, 'I'm going to stick my penis in that thing.'"

The HBGary hack wound up being more than a bit of payback: Barr, it turned out, had been gearing up a "dirty tricks" campaign against pro-WikiLeaks journalists like Salon's Glenn Greenwald. He'd also pitched the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on how to discredit labor unions and liberal groups. The leak of Barr's e-mails resulted in his resignation and also caused 17 members of Congress to push for an investigation into HBGary's activities.

Watching this go down, Hammond was amazed. "It was an epic hack," he says. Sabu, who took credit – a bit too much credit, many thought – intrigued Hammond. Unlike other Anons, Sabu talked a tough game, using ghetto slang like "my nigga," and shared Hammond's loathing for the police. He even hinted at a criminal past. "I've been to jail before – I don't fear it," he wrote in one online post. "I've been in the game for over a decade."

Says one of Hammond's Chicago friends, "I can totally imagine Jeremy digging the fact that he befriended a hacker from the hood."

Few people in the movement expressed themselves with such passion, and all Hammond could see was a fellow hacktivist down for the cause. "He put the work in; that's why I respected him," Hammond says. "And I trusted him too." It wasn't initially clear why. Most longtime hackers prefer to work in the shadows, never letting anyone know who they are. Sabu bragged about his talents, awing younger Anons, many of them teenagers, with tales of his "Puerto Rican hacking crew" from the late 1990s and his subsequent years "underground." "He made it seem like you were in this supersecret revolutionary group and portrayed himself as this silent underground hero who was risking everything to make a difference," says one former acolyte.

Hammond, too, was drawn in by Sabu's rhetoric. "He seemed to understand, more than most Anons, what the root of the problem really was," Hammond says. "I'd sit in IRC watching these arguments go down – just stupid shit people would say. But there were some people who got to the baseline element and said things like, 'We must destroy capitalism. We must destroy their systems.' That interested me."

But the random malice that Anonymous, and Sabu's crew in particular, unleashed turned off many, including a 40-year-old Michigan mom and longtime Internet denizen named Jennifer Emick, who had come to believe that some of the more ideologically driven Anons might be dangerous. Shortly after HBGary, Emick decided to do what Aaron Barr had failed to do: She outed, or "doxed," a number of key Anons, including Sabu, publicly listing his name and the neighborhood he lived in. This was perhaps the worst thing that could happen to a hacker, striking a blow to his pride, as well as to his much cherished invisibility – removing the protection that's made Anonymous so powerful to begin with, and leaving him vulnerable to government tracking and, ultimately, arrest.

Sabu denied she'd gotten him, taking to Twitter and issuing a passionate cri de coeur, in which he reminded all Anons that they were "part of something powerful," urging them not to "succumb to fear tactics" and to "stay free."

In many ways, Anonymous, with its nonhierarchical structure, was the realization of what Hammond had always wanted to create – indeed, his 2004 DefCon speech provided the blueprint for what the hacktivist collective became. But Anonymous activism was different than real-world activism, where flesh-and-blood true believers like Hammond could develop passionate followings. In the faceless, nameless online world where no one knew who anyone was, it was the trolls and the liars, the social engineers like Sabu, with a remarkable capacity for duplicity, who spoke the loudest. "It's extremely easy to manipulate people online if you just know how," says one former Anon. "The whole point of IRC is that you can be anyone you want: a revolutionary, a troll, an FBI agent."

Over the coming months, as Hammond's interest grew, Internet Feds morphed into a splinter group called Lulz Security, or Lulzsec. It was led by Sabu with support from a talented propagandist named Topiary. Between May 7th and June 25th, 2011 – dubbed the "50 Days of Lulz" – Lulzsec attacked multinational corporations, gaming sites and several porn sites. Each action was announced with splashy, theatrical bits of PR: a fancifully worded press release and hyped-up Tweets, all designed to garner maximum attention. The media rushed to declare Lulzsec "cyber-vigilantes." New York magazine would later describe them as the Internet's "SEAL Team Six."

The hacks were so spectacular, and came so fast, that few Anons noticed that Sabu went missing for a full 24 hours in June, something he'd never done before. When he returned to IRC, telling his crew that his grandmother had died, Lulzsec accepted it, though in retrospect something was different about him. "We immediately saw a change in his attitude," recalls one former colleague. "He started really pushing the revolutionary rhetoric, trying to band everyone together by calling us 'brothers' and saying we were 'all in this together' and we were 'family.'"

On June 19th, 2011, Sabu announced the launch of Operation Antisec, "the biggest, unified operation amongst hackers in history." The declaration got Hammond's attention, as did Antisec's tantalizing lists of targets, including "banks and other high-ranking establishments." Stuck in his Chicago house on a curfew, barred from real-life activism, Hammond couldn't help himself. "It was like call-and-response," he says.

By the late spring of 2011, rumors were rampant within the hacktivist underground that the FBI, replicating the notorious Cointel program of the 1960s, had heavily infiltrated Anonymous chat rooms. Within Sabu's tight circle, paranoia was particularly strong, and it intensified exponentially as the 50 days of Lulz drew to an end.

In late June, Lulzsec released hundreds of pages of sensitive information belonging to Arizona law enforcement accompanied by a lengthy announcement posted online titled "Chinga la Migra" – Fuck the Police. If the FBI's assumptions are correct, this was Hammond's first official criminal act as a member of Anonymous – and it was a radical departure from what had come before.

The statement led off with an illustration of an AK-47 and the slogan "Off the pigs." The data dump – hundreds of private intelligence bulletins, training manuals, personal e-mails, names, phone numbers, addresses and passwords belonging to Arizona law enforcement, including documents pertaining to the border patrol and counterterrorism efforts, and the use of confidential informants – was made in protest of the "racial profiling anti-immigrant police state that is Arizona."

After Chinga la Migra #1, there was Chinga la Migra #2, #3 and #4 – all directed at Arizona, and later Texas, law enforcement; each one more radical sounding than the last. "Yes we're aware that [releasing the personal information of police officers] risks their safety, those poor defenseless police officers who lock people up for decades, who get away with brutality and torture . . . who make and break their own laws as they see fit," one missive read. "We are making sure they experience . . . the same kind of violence and terror they dish out on an every day basis." It concluded: "We're not stopping until every prisoner is freed and every prison is burned to the ground."

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Culture Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.