Describing itself variously as an "Online Living Consciousness", an "internet gathering" and a "group of atoms", the one thing Anonymous, the loose coalition of Pro-WikiLeaks hacktivists, never claimed to be was organised. But a peek at the organisation's inner workings has revealed that its efforts are directed by a tiny hardcore of organisers.
Anonymous first grabbed the world's attention with a string of attacks against high-profile anti-piracy organisations. In October, the group's 'Operation Payback' brought down the sites of recording industry lobbyists the RIAA, as well as controversial legal outfit ACS Law (opens in new tab), famous for knowingly threatening the innocent with demands for cash in a practice it termed "speculative invoicing".
But it was in the wake of 'Cablegate', WikiLeaks' release of more than 250,000 secret US diplomatic cables (opens in new tab), that Anonymous hit the big time, redirecting the efforts of Operation Payback to pull down the web sites of Mastercard, Visa (opens in new tab) and PayPal (opens in new tab) after they pulled the plug on the whistle-blowing site's funding - all organised, said the "internet gathering", by a nebulous and ever-changing "hivemind" composed of many individuals.
According to a report in today's (opens in new tab)Guardian (opens in new tab) newspaper, however, the group is in fact intensely hierarchical, with attacks co-ordinated by a close-knit central command of around 12 experienced hackers.
It was this secretive elite that was behind an attack on the US-based Gawker websites at the weekend, reports the Guardian. The email addresses and passwords of more than 1.3 million users were made public, prompting a spam attack on micro-blogging site Twitter than is now being investigated by the FBI (opens in new tab).
One member - who insisted on remaining (ahem) anonymous - said that Anonymous's "command and control" centres were invite-only, adding: "It's to protect people, but if you have proven trustworthy you get invited - it's not hard to do. It's not some elitist structure but a way to keep the press and the odd bit of law enforcement seeing who issues commands."
A study of the group made by New York University professor Gabriella Coleman (opens in new tab) revealed Anonymous's network comprises around 1,000 individuals - 99 per cent of whom, according to one insider, have little influence over the group's strategy.
In spite of the arrest of two teenagers from the Netherlands, as well as a Greek designer who accidentally left his name (opens in new tab) in the properties of a PDF document posted on behalf of the group, in connection with their involvement in Anonymous, the group looks set to continue its campaign.
A video (opens in new tab) released by Anonymous members yesterday celebrated the release on bail of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange - and a post on Twitter (opens in new tab) today announced the intention to step up its plethora of pro-WikiLeaks campaigns.
Just in time for the school Christmas holidays...