GOP chairman warns of ISIS's ‘cyber caliphate’

GOP chairman warns of ISIS's ‘cyber caliphate’
© Greg Nash

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonKavanaugh, accuser to testify publicly on Monday Kavanaugh furor intensifies as calls for new testimony grow House panel advances DHS cyber vulnerabilities bills MORE (R-Wis.) joined a number of lawmakers on Wednesday raising alarm over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) success in leveraging digital platforms to recruit and spread terrorist propaganda.

“It is good that we by and large have taken away the physical caliphate,” Johnson, the chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said during remarks at a hearing on evolving terror threats.

“[But] we have in no way, shape or form denied them the cyber caliphate. That may be a more persistent, long-term threat.” 

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The U.S.-led coalition battling ISIS has made notable gains in recent months, liberating large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria from the group’s fighters.

Still, lawmakers and officials remain focused on the group’s efforts to recruit would-be fighters and spread terrorist messaging using social media and other digital platforms, in addition to inspiring future attacks. 

Nikki Floris, deputy assistant director for counterterrorism at the FBI, stressed during prepared remarks before the Homeland Security panel on Wednesday that the bureau needs to continue to evolve as terror groups leverage new technologies.

“Their widespread use of technology propagates the persistent terrorist message to attack U.S. interests here and abroad,” Floris said.

“No group has been as successful at drawing people into its perverse message as ISIS,” Floris continued. “ISIS uses high-quality traditional media platforms as well as widespread social media campaigns to propagate its extremist ideology.”

She particularly emphasized the terror group’s use of encrypted communications, allowing them to evade law enforcement.

ISIS has been known to use encrypted messaging apps like Telegram in order to communicate with potential recruits.

Floris said the FBI has “significantly shifted” resources to going after terror groups online. 

While ISIS has also demonstrated some hacking capabilities, those contribute comparatively minimally to its success in distributing propaganda using the digital realm, officials noted.

“They are able to deface websites,” Lora Shiao, a counterterrorism official at the Office of Director of National Intelligence, told lawmakers. “They have put out ‘hit lists’ of personally identifiable information on westerners, but this is primarily for intimidation. It’s not a key strength for them.”

Some social media companies like Twitter have taken steps to remove extremist propaganda online. Still, lawmakers remain alarmed over ISIS’s use of such digital platforms.

“They still pose a significant threat to us in the cyber domain,” said Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersLawmakers move to award posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to Aretha Franklin The farm bill gives Congress a chance to act on the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act Bipartisanship alive and well, protecting critical infrastructure MORE (D-Mich.). “Probably the most significant threat we face as a country comes from the cyber threat that we must deal with.”