- U.S. Air Force/Technical Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo
Digital communication and social media are key to the operation of the Islamic State, and the US military now appears poised to counter the group’s cybercapabilities.
A recent report in The New York Times offers some idea of the military’s new plans for its Cyber Command unit to counter the digital operations of the Islamic State, the terrorist group also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh.
With an eye on ISIS’ heavy use of social media to recruit and coordinate, Cyber Command will now aim operations at ISIS with the hope of disrupting “the ability of the Islamic State to spread its message, attract new adherents, circulate orders from commanders and carry out day-to-day functions,” according to The Times.
In fact, ISIS’ reliance on digital media makes it a fairly obvious target for cyberwarfare, a fact The Times’ David Sanger reports led to some tension: President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter were reportedly both unsatisfied with the fact that the US’s cyberarsenal had largely not been directed at terrorist organizations.
“ISIS is a very decentralized organization,” David Kennedy, CEO of the security firm TrustedSec who previously worked in the Marine Corps intelligence community, told Business Insider, “so they have nodes all over the world … Launching an offensive on a specific group makes sense from a cybercapability [perspective] because there’s no way you would be able to go in militarily and eradicate them or wipe them out.”
‘You start to get extremely paranoid about everything you do’
The US’s new cyberwar on ISIS also aims to play a key role in deterring ISIS’ use of certain lines of communication, such as on applications like Telegram, a favorite tool of ISIS militants that uses end-to-end encryption.
As ISIS members and sympathizers become increasingly aware of efforts being made to surveil and disrupt their digital lines of communication, – even renaming digital chat rooms to seemingly innocuous things like “FOOTBALL GAME TIMES” – they could become reluctant to use the currently convenient methods available to them.
“It really strikes fear into the communication modes that they’re leveraging,” Kennedy continued. If the US were known to be imitating ISIS on Telegram, militants might hesitate to use it. “You start to get extremely paranoid about everything you do, and you can’t trust anything.”
Details in the Times report on Cyber Command’s specific operations were sparse, but officials mentioned studying the “online habits” of high-ranking ISIS members with the intention of imitating them for tactical purposes, like directing militants into vulnerable real-world positions. Other operations could include the disruption of digital money transfers.
Both of the plans mentioned highlight the fact that Cyber Command is not a magic wand but a complement to traditional military capabilities. Speaking with Air Force Academy cadets, Susan Rice, the US national security adviser, said cyberattacks “should not be taken out of proportion.” Evidently, some inside the defense community were less than pleased with Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work’s comments that the US was dropping “cyber bombs” on the Islamic State.
Kennedy also said an obstacle to making an impact on the digital front could be issues of talent retention – an issue recently reported to be hitting the Department of Homeland Security as well.
“The military has had trouble with retention because the rest of the industry, especially the private sector, has been hurting so much for people,” Kennedy said, “so [Cyber Command] has a high turnover rate for people that are in the service for maybe four or five years, and then they get out, making six figures in jobs in the private sector based off of being in Cyber Command.”