Cyber Defense

US prepares to take the cyber fight to ISIS

Because secrecy is the nature of their business, the U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency would prefer to keep their cyber capabilities under wraps. But as Peter Singer, a strategist at the New America Foundation, wrote recently: “While [Edward] Snowden’s disclosures obviously angered his former employers, they also show that the folks at [the NSA] have much to be proud of. They have developed unmatched, amazingly exotic capabilities, from a mindboggling scale of global monitoring devices to new classes of cyberweapons that use radio signals to jump software over the previously protective physical divides between systems.” 

Some of the U.S. capabilities are known to have been deployed, with the most daring and destructive example being the Stuxnet virus that disrupted parts of Iran’s nuclear processing capability. 

Now, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has indicated that these advanced cyber capabilities could be used to combat ISIS. “And, as our military campaign intensifies on the ground and in the air, the Defense Department is also developing more strategic options in the cyber domain,” Carter wrote in prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in December. When asked by a member of the Senate panel about the information war against groups such as ISIS, Carter said: “We do operate in the cyber domain. I alluded to that and we’re at war and we have authorities to use our Cyber Command, in this case and are identifying opportunities to do that.”

In a recent trip overseas to evaluate the military and U.S.-led coalition’s efforts against ISIS, Carter further clarified his position on the use of cyber tools against ISIS. “I was referring to the use of our Title 10 Cybercom forces as part of the military campaign. I think that's an important dimension of the campaign that we can use more… [the] great use of Cybercom, and actually prosecuted the campaign,” he told reporters. “You'll have to wait until we devise that, I'm not prepared to talk about that right now, but I gave you the characterization of what kind of capabilities I mean.” 

Officials are holding their cards close to their chest, loath to disclose any operational details. “As a matter of operational security, however, we do not discuss plans, operations or specific capabilities,” a Cybercom spokesperson told Defense Systems in an email. Declining to outline what types of targets or capabilities Cybercom could bring to the fight, Cybercom offered only that it “provides a broad range of cyber options to the nation's leaders to include providing daily support to joint force commanders.”  Furthermore, a spokesperson for the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the organization prosecuting the U.S.-led global coalition against ISIS, told Defense Systems that it did not have any information to provide concerning the cyber efforts against ISIS. 

However, the Los Angeles Times reported that Secretary Carter is scheduled to meet with top officials this week to discuss “a menu of digital options, including jamming and viruses, that could be used to target the Sunni Muslim group's communications, according to the officials."

The Times went on to report that the White House directed the military to develop more options to combat ISIS in cyberspace, requesting options to see what’s available to military leaders. “[T]he White House is leaning toward more targeted cyberattacks when intelligence can pinpoint specific phones, computers or other digital devices used by the Web-savvy militants,” the report said.  While Cyber Command has been used against the group, some suggest more widespread use of computer viruses could be deployed, although shutting down network access could backfire affecting humanitarian and aid groups.

While most military officials and those in academia believe that nation states still pose the greatest threat in cyberspace—since non-state actors and hacktivists don’t have the resources to execute advanced or destructive attacks—ISIS poses a distinct threat by using social media and the Internet to recruit more members to its cause. 

Additionally, the group has attempted to bolster its cyber capabilities through the acts of “lone wolf” sympathizers. The Justice Department recently indicted a Kosovar man for his role in stealing information on U.S. service members and providing it to ISIS. The United States also recently targeted a member of ISIS’s so-called “CyberCaliphate” because of his potential capabilities in the cyber domain.

Despite the relatively limited nature of non-state actor capabilities in cyberspace, which thus far have largely amounted to annoying denial of service attempts with some success in taking down television stations, ISIS’s cyber capabilities have drawn significant scrutiny. “We face sophisticated cyber threats from state-sponsored hackers, hackers for hire, organized cyber syndicates, and terrorists,” Christopher Painter, State Department coordinator for cyber issues, told a special meeting of the United Nations in mid-December. “Terrorist groups, especially the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, have become extremely adept in using the Internet and information and communications technologies … to propagate their hateful messages and recruit and inspire others to engage in violence,” he said.

“ISIL’s the first social media terrorist organization. They're fueled by this. They talk to each other this way, and the honest truth is that we're behind in countering this kind of tactic by an enemy,” Carter told troops in Afghanistan this month. “And we got to get better at that, and we're working really hard at that, at denying the enemy the advantages of communication and connection, exploiting their communications so we know better what they're up to and who they're recruiting.”

Defining the distinct problem of combating a group such as ISIS that uses common Internet channels for recruitment and operations, Painter said, “as powerful as it is, we must avoid treating the Internet as the problem. The Internet is, instead, a technological medium for communication—the terrorists and other criminals who use it are the problem.

“The challenge,” Painter continued, “is how to aggressively investigate, disrupt, and deter criminal activity online, including terrorism, while preserving the characteristics of the Internet that make it so vital to modern society.”

The Pentagon, additionally, might begin going after ISIS on Twitter, as authorized in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. However, it’s not clear at the moment how DOD’s efforts will differ or be an improvement of its diplomatic counterparts in State, which have been primarily responsible for this portion of the fight.

One thing is clear, however: The battle in cyberspace is here and is being exploited by adversaries of all stripes—nation-states and non-state actors alike. “But the cyber battle—battlefield—it's not a matter of the future,” Carter said. “You can see it right now, and we need people like you, because we need to be ahead of the game. Just as the United States, militarily, has always been the firstest with the mostest -- I'm proud of that.”

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

Defense Systems Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.