Pentagon hits ISIS with 'cyber bombs' in full-scale online campaign

Pentagon hits ISIS with 'cyber bombs' in full-scale online campaign
© Getty Images

The Pentagon is launching its first full-scale cyber offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), The New York Times reported.

The campaign includes efforts to imitate prominent ISIS commanders online and mislead militants, as well as to interrupt and redirect electronic transfers of money used to fund the group’s extremist agenda. To conduct the offensive, the Pentagon has created a cadre of “national mission teams” that resemble special operations forces.

ADVERTISEMENT
The military is hoping to spread concern among ISIS members that U.S. cyberattacks are manipulating their data and eavesdropping on communications with potential recruits.

“We are dropping cyber bombs,” Robert Work, deputy secretary of Defense, told the Times. “We have never done that before.”

To this point, the U.S. has struggled to counteract ISIS online. The terrorist group successfully uses online messaging platforms and social media networks to spread propaganda, radicalize foreigners and conduct its own low-scale digital disruptions through cyberattacks.

To combat these ISIS initiatives, the Obama administration has previously indicated it was developing an offensive cyber campaign, but officials largely refused to discuss details.

Until recently, the government would not even confirm whether the military used offensive cyber weapons.

But within the last few months, officials have started to open up.

“Our cyber operations are disrupting [ISIS’s] command-and-control and communications,” President Obama said earlier this month, after a meeting at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave similar remarks during a press conference in February.  

“We’re trying to both physically and virtually isolate ISIL, limit their ability to conduct command and control, limit their ability to communicate with each other, limit their ability to conduct operations locally and tactically,” he said, using the administration's preferred acronym for the terrorist group.

For the U.S. Cyber Command, the campaign is a shift in focus. The unit has historically been focused on digital adversaries such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

Military officials told the Times that Defense Secretary Ash Carter believed this attention was too narrow and that he set deadlines for Cyber Command to develop a campaign that would target ISIS.

Reportedly, Obama also expressed frustration last fall at the fact the Pentagon was not using its massive arsenal of cyber weapons to go after ISIS militants.

The directives have generated a debate within the government over the value of the digital assault, according to the Times.

Adm. Michael Rogers oversees both Cyber Command and the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA focuses on placing implants in foreign networks that can be used to clandestinely gather vital intelligence.

Those implants can also be used to manipulate data or take a network offline. But once used for such a purpose, adversaries quickly realize the network has been compromised and switch approaches, cutting off the government’s access to the intelligence.

Some NSA officials are concerned that ramping up the offensive cyber campaign against ISIS will cause the militants to migrate to new communications channels that are more difficult to spy on.

“It’s a delicate balance,” Susan Rice, White House national security adviser, told the Times. “We still have to keep our eye on the Russia-China state-sponsored activity, but this was a new mission, one where we have to balance the collection equities against the disruption equities.”