March 25, 2008 — -- The controversial group has been labeled secretive, inspirational, dangerous and misunderstood.
The Church of Scientology?
No, it's a mysterious group of masked men and computer hackers called Anonymous who say are committed to dismantling the powerful religious organization renowned for its celebrity members such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Over the past few months, Anonymous has picketed and protested at Scientology centers around the world from Australia and Atlanta to Brussels and Boston. They've also hacked into the church's Web site, posted numerous videos on YouTube criticizing the church and have been accused of harassing church officials.
Now the church is fighting back with its own public relations onslaught, releasing a recent video titled "Anonymous Exposed," which identifies individual it said were members of the group and accuses them of being accessories to criminal acts that include death threats and destruction of property.
"We wanted people who were unaware of what's going on to know about the criminal acts permitted by their leaders," church spokeswoman Karin Pouw told ABCNEWS.com, adding that the church is working with federal and local law enforcement. "[The video] summarizes our position."
Members of Anonymous try to remain anonymous, but ABCNews.com has reached several individuals who say they are members of the group and who talked on the condition that their names not be revealed.
"Anonymous contains all kinds of individuals, academics, college students, members of law enforcement, media professionals and blue collar workers," a 25-year-old member of Anonymous with a computer science background told ABCNEWS.com in an e-mail, on the condition that he remain unidentified. "We are united by a mind-set, not by a membership card… We have no leaders and adhere to the true definition of a collective."
Responding to claims made in the church's video and statements from Church of Scientology leaders equating Anonymous with domestic terrorists, the Anonymous member wrote:
"Anonymous does not support, encourage or condone threats of violence in our campaign against Scientology. The 'bomb threat' video was reported to the FBI and to the media as soon as it was seen on YouTube. They were both told that this video was not produced by Anonymous."
Other members of Anonymous, who were college students in California, also denied that they have made any violent threats and claimed that they believe in lawful protest against what they perceive as the heavy-handed tactics of the church. The also e-mailed ABCNews.com on the condition that their identities remain anonymous.
An FBI spokesperson declined comment.
For at least three decades, Scientology has gained a devoted following in Hollywood and around the world among those attracted to its message of self-help, and it has drawn ridicule and suspicion for some of its more controversial beliefs and its secretive nature.
But it was two recent events that propelled the members of Anonymous to act. Sources told ABCNEWS.com that they were initially intrigued by the publication of Andrew Morton's biography of Tom Cruise, which was highly critical of Scientology. That drew them to the Internet for more information where they came across the leak of several church videos on YouTube featuring Cruise's wildly enthusiastic praise of Scientology.
The church called the book "a bigoted, defamatory assault replete with lies" and subsequently it was not published in the United Kingdom and Australia for fear of libel lawsuits.
The Anonymous members were particularly offended, however, by the church's attempt to have the leaked videos removed from the Internet. The church claimed showing the videos was a copyright violation.
"Those heavy-handed attempts to censor the Web outraged members of Anonymous," said church critic Dave Touretzky, a research professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. "A lot of these Anonymous members are young kids and weren't aware of the [church's] history. They became curious about Scientology when the Cruise videos hit YouTube and saw how the church was reacting."
In the middle of January, Anonymous sent a message to the church that included the threat, "We have therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed. … We shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology."
The church claims that on Jan. 18, they received 241 harassing phone calls and death threats. On Jan. 22, it claimed that three churches received bomb threats. Three days later, Anonymous broadcast a video that included protesters break-dancing in front of Scientology facilities.
On Feb. 10 and March 15, thousands of Anonymous members protested against the church in cities around the world, including Dublin, Melbourne, Toronto, London and New York. Many of the protesters wore masks inspired by the V character from the movie, "V for Vendetta," who was an anarchist leader fighting to overthrow a totalitarian government.
True to their name, most of the protesters have remained anonymous. But two of them, 21-year-old James Farrell and Charles Hicks, were arrested in the Atlanta area March 15 outside the Georgia Church of Scientology in Dunwoody.
"They were arrested for screaming and cursing on a bullhorn, which is against our hazardous conditions ordinance," said Dekalb County spokeswoman Keisha Williams. "Three others were cited or ticketed for violating the same ordinance."
Farrell and Hicks could not be reached for comment.
At another Anonymous protest that day in Mountain View, Calif., protesters handed out fliers advertising a Web site called www.exscientologykids.com, where former church members complain about their experiences.
One of the Web site's founders is Jenna Miscavige Hill, the niece of current Scientology leader David Miscavige.
Church officials in Mountain View said they have contacted the local police in Mountain View to report several threatening phone calls.
"I believe they are domestic terrorists," said Scientology's public affairs director Matt Ward.
But one of the protesters disputed that said ex-Scientologist Bill Offermann, a 63-year-old painting contractor who attended the rally and is not a member of the group, although he communicates with its members.
"They seem to want to expose the truth rather than make far-fetched claims. ... With the power of the Internet, there is very little that the church can do to stop them."