Rogers’ nightmare: weaponization of cyber by terrorists

In testimony to lawmakers, Cyber Command chief Adm. Michael Rogers highlighted the potential damage non-state actors could inflict in cyberspace going forward.

While non-state actors today are not on par with nation states as far as cyber capabilities are concerned, terrorist groups, criminals, hackers and the like could possess destructive capabilities enjoyed by a small circle of nations in the not-so-distant future.

According to Adm. Michael Rogers, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, non-state groups using cyber as a weapon system to inflict harm is one of the things that keeps him up at night. “The challenge I look for or that concerns me when I look at the future is what happens if the non-state actor – [ISIS] being one example – starts to view cyber as a weapon system? That would really be a troubling development,” he told lawmakers April 5.    

Rogers said ISIS, which one of, if not the most adept, non-state terrorist organizations online, uses the Internet to expose its ideology, recruit on a global scale, generate revenue and coordinate activity. However, despite the minimal threat posed by non-state actors in cyberspace compared with formidable nations like Russia or China, Rogers called cyber “the great equalizer.”

“Today what I would tell you is I have not seen groups yet make huge investments in [weaponizing cyber], but I worry that it’s a matter of time because it wouldn’t take long,” he said. “One of the challenges of cyber—and in addition we previously talked today about how it doesn’t recognize boundaries—it doesn’t take billions of dollars of investment, it doesn’t take decades of time, and it doesn’t take a dedicated workforce of tens of thousands of people like you see most nation states deal with.”

Rogers added that destructive cyber capabilities are not beyond the ability of groups such as ISIS or al-Qaeda if they made that decision. 

DOD CIO Terry Halvorsen has also hit on the disparity cyberspace affords to non-state actors.  “From a standpoint of cybersecurity, right now we’re on the wrong side of the financial spectrum here. We’re losing,” he said at a conference. “The truth is, you can spend a little bit of money and a little bit of time and exploit some our weaknesses, and cause us to have to spend a lot of money, a lot of time.”

Up to this point, non-state and terrorist organizations have only been capable of defacing webpages and distributed denial-of-service attacks. U.S. officials have warned that these groups are continually looking to refine their capabilities.  “You need to prepare because it’s going to come here,” Assistant Attorney General John Carlin said at a conference recently, regarding “cyber jihad.”  “We’re watching as they actively try to acquire the capability to match their intent.”

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has already ordered the U.S. Cyber Command to engage ISIS and disrupt its efforts. “I have given Cyber Command in the counter-ISIL fight really its first wartime assignment. And we’re seeing how that works out,” Carter said, using the administration’s preferred acronym for ISIS,  in an appearance at CSIS April 5. “It means interrupting their ability to command and control their forces, interrupting their ability to plot, including against us here, and anywhere else against our friends and allies around the world. Interrupting their finances—their ability to pay people—their ability to dominate the population on whose territories they have tried to establish this nasty ideology.”

While DOD is not viewing this first foray into cyber war as a test case for future cyber war operations against other targets per say, the department is using it to make improvements to its current capabilities. Cyber is one of many capabilities in a larger bag to choose from that did not exist years ago, a DOD spokesperson told Defense Systems. As a planning organization, DOD is always looking to make improvements and apply lessons learned, whether saving money or in an operational context, the spokesman said.

Cyber has also become so important that military brass and members of Congress have talked about raising Cyber Command, now a sub-unified command under the Strategic Command (which is tasked with maintaining the nuclear infrastructure), to a full unified combatant command. 

“[W]e should consider changes to cyber’s role in DOD’s Unified Command Plan,” Carter said inprepared remarks at CSIS, citing the cross-domain aspect cyber has on operations.   

Carter elaborated on this train of thought as it applies to Cyber Command’s efforts in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, and how it relates to the U.S. Central Command, as well as the European and African commands. “[S]o we're increasingly finding the problem not just of interregional integration, but of regional functional integration. The lines as clean as we could make them. That's perfectly reasonable. You've got to divide up the pie somehow. But once you've done that, you may need to make sure the slices are able to work together and you haven't artificially created barriers.”

Rogers also hit on this point in his testimony this week, noting that elevating Cyber Command to a combatant command would “allow us to be faster, generate better mission outcomes,” adding that “the department’s processes of budget, prioritization, strategy, policy, are all generally structured to enable direct combatant commander input into those processes. And I believe cyber needs to be part of the direct process.”   

Rogers, however, has dismissed the notion for the need to create a new cyber “branch,” vis-à-vis the Air Force growing out of the Army Air Corps following World War II. “You have some advocating, ‘Is cyber so different, so specialized, so unique, so not well understood that it requires a very centralized, focused, unique construct to how we generate capacity and knowledge?’ There are some who make that argument. I am not one of those,” Rogers said at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council in January. “Cyber doesn’t exist in a vacuum…Cyber exists in a broader context.”    

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