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October 02, 2015

The more realistic version of that New York Times Magazine article.

The New York Times Magazine released a story about American vigilantes who have traveled to Syria in order to fight ISIS head on. But the real vigilantes are the heroes who sit at home in their basements, trolling ISIS on Twitter. I present to you below a more realistic version of their article.

It was May in Syria. Pink thistles grew up there through the landscape despite the horrific war in progress. But this wasn’t Syria. This was 26-year-old American Jeremy Grabar’s mom’s basement. And he was at war with ISIS.

The first time Grabar heard of ISIS was on 4Chan. After realizing that Isis was using Twitter to lure in recruits to their cause, he quit his job as a senior programmer at Google to lend his talents to the cause. “I knew I wanted to take them down. And it’s not like I was going to go over there and fight them- that’s crazy. This is a war that’s going to be won or lost on social media.”

Grabar found a subreddit called “Whovians Against ISIS.” From there, he sold all the furniture in his Silicon Valley apartment and moved back to Michigan to his parents’ house so he could devote day and night to infiltrating ISIS. He got his hacking assignment to crash an ISIS server. “I never thought I would actually do it. But I’m a patriot and I love America. So I purposefully hacked into a server with the intent to destroy it.” Grabar looked off into the distance, wrestling with some difficult feelings, and shoveled another Chee-toh into his mouth. “This is war.”

I got the sense that many of the men fighting ISIS through their computers were dissatisfied with the fight. I met one man in New Jersey, also living in his mother’s basement, who asked to be referred to only by his warrior name, @TF2Ninja. @TF2Ninja left a job in the IT services department of the County College of Randolph to devote himself to fighting ISIS full time. “I thought I would be teaching insurgents how to code, but it turns out that they don’t have the time of day for a guy with a reddit karma score of over 120,000. Idiots.”

Like Grabar and @TF2Ninja, many of these men are former programmers with a mission. But some of them are merely civilians who wanted to do whatever they could to stop ISIS. Craig Pafford was unemployed before he joined the fight, but now he dedicates up to twelve hours each day fighting ISIS. “Yeah, so basically what I do is I find Twitter handles of these Islamic guys that mention ISIS, and I just Rickroll ‘em. I send about 300 fake links every day, so yeah, God bless America.”

Not everyone agreed with these tactics. “Oh yeah, that Rickroll guy is an idiot,” Grabar told me. “But @AllahBelieber is straight up insane.” @AllahBelieber is known among the vigilante troll crowd as the most intense man on the front lines. I met him in his mother’s home’s basement in Oklahoma.

“See, you gotta make sure you sound like a teenage girl, so you gotta read up on teenage girl stuff.” We were in a wood-panelled rec-room surrounded by posters of Justin Bieber and One Direction. @AllahBelieber is a fifty-five year old truck driver who now spends 130 hours a week pretending he’s a teen girl. In a perverse take on to To Catch a Predator, he lures ISIS members in, and lets them think they’ve almost convinced another sixteen year old Christian girl to convert to Islam and join their ranks. He looks surprisingly girlish when he’s wearing a headscarf.

“The thing is, if every person in America took just an hour out of their day to pose as a teenage girl and chat with an ISIS member, we could waste so much of ISIS’ time that we’d put them out of business! But I guess until the Obama administration wakes up, I’ll have to do it myself.” In a way, his plan does make logical sense. “Oh well, another week of pretending I love wearing cotton candy lip gloss and listening to 1D!”

I did hear of one programmer who actually left his mother’s basement and flew straight to the action in Syria. His plan was to develop an app to help the Kurds crowd source the locations of ISIS members. As of press time, he had wandered off into the desert in search of “more bars” and hadn’t been seen in two weeks.

I asked Grabar if he thought it was all worth it. He thought for a moment, the glow of the monitor bathing his pale face in an eerie light. “Worth it? Well, my mom is doing my laundry now, so yeah, definitely.”