ISIS is winning the cyber war. Here's how to stop it.
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Despite U.S. efforts, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) remains a formidable opponent today. It holds territory in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Nigeria, while directing cells in Egypt, France, Bangladesh, Yemen and the North Caucasus, among other hotspots around the world.

The Trump administration has publicly committed itself to defeating ISIS. However, like the Obama administration before it, the current administration has primarily focused its efforts on using airpower and special forces to physically destroy ISIS. The administration's new plan to introduce more conventional military forces into the region to recapture Raqqa, ISIS's capital, is more of the same.

To defeat ISIS, we need an entirely new strategy, one that takes on ISIS where it is highly effective — in cyberspace.

While ISIS continues to foment regional instability in the greater Middle East, its prowess online has made it a threat to Western nations, as well. ISIS focuses significant resources on cyberspace, where it has a global presence, using sophisticated techniques to electronically communicate with its far-flung sympathizers, spread its propaganda and recruit operatives around the world.

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To date, U.S. efforts to monitor ISIS's use of social media and counter its online propaganda and recruitment efforts have been tentative, hesitant and amateurish. Responsibility for counter-messaging has shifted between various organizations, but these agencies do not seem to share lessons learned or even operate using a cohesive strategy.

 

Moreover, a January 2017 investigation revealed that many of the U.S. military analysts involved in these efforts were neither familiar with the basic tenets of Islam, nor could they speak fluent Arabic.

Online, ISIS is a technologically savvy, sophisticated, nimble organization that learns from its mistakes and from the actions of Western intelligence services that have sought to counter it.

To defeat ISIS in cyberspace, the United States must first commit itself to establishing a strategic plan that emphasizes flexibility, adaptability, information-sharing and cooperation among government agencies. We must create cyber-teams as flexible and adaptable as the terrorists they are fighting.

We must maintain continuous, systematic monitoring of all of ISIS's online activities, and create new online content quickly. ISIS's patterns of propaganda dissemination are evolving but predictable, based on trial and error. Our current efforts create a series of reactive, mostly ineffective, counter-narratives that potential jihadis readily dismiss.

Instead, the United States must become aggressive and proactive in its anti-ISIS online activities: We must immediately move to hijack ISIS's own narratives and create alternatives. Just as we accept the risk of misfires in kinetic warfare, we must allow cyber and messaging teams the freedom to learn by doing and morph as ISIS does.

Once our understanding, skills and confidence grow, we need to begin a significant, concerted, continuous set of offensive operations against ISIS online: This is a war of information, not just a war involving drones and special forces. The United States must take the information dimension of this war as seriously as it takes the physical destruction of ISIS.

The good news is that this strategy is not likely to require creating large, expensive programs. Bringing together small teams of counterterrorist experts; regional experts who know the languages, dialects, actors and groups involved; and social media-savvy technical experts is a cheap and cost-effective approach.

American cyber communications teams do not need to write a wholly new strategy, since ISIS has already done that for us. In monitoring ISIS's patterns of dissemination, clear holes appear.

For example, ISIS advertises upcoming propaganda video releases in short "trailers," often days before the actual piece is released. Our teams could begin to populate channels with counter-messaging named after the upcoming ISIS release, thus guaranteeing traffic on the content as recruits wait for the ISIS release to be disseminated.

Adopting this new strategy will provide us with greater awareness of how ISIS operates online, how it recruits new members, how it radicalizes Muslims in the West and what its future plans may be. It will also offer an aggressive set of new means to create viable, proactive alternatives to ISIS's own messages.

Currently, ISIS is winning the online war for the hearts and minds of tens of thousands of Muslims around the world. We must begin to act rapidly and aggressively and beat ISIS at its own game.

Andrew Byers is a military historian and visiting assistant professor of history at Duke University. He has served as an intelligence and counterterrorism analyst. Tara Mooney is a counter-violent-extremism analyst and co-founder of Talon Intelligence.


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