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The US military is about to open a digital front against Islamic State terrorists, several media outlets reported, citing sources from inside the Pentagon. So far, the cyber campaign has been managed by the State Department, reportedly with little success.
Pentagon officials have been asked to show some options to the White House, US officials who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Los Angeles Times over the weekend. The US Cyber Command in Fort Meade, Maryland could use malware to disrupt Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) propaganda and recruitment efforts online, the officials added.
The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) currently runs a Twitter campaign called “Think again, turn away,” aimed at potential IS recruits. With much deeper pockets than the State Department, the Pentagon’s operation could easily dwarf the CSCC’s 70 employees.
Until recently, however, the military was not authorized to conduct propaganda activities, as they fell within the realm of public diplomacy. The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act contained language allowing the Department of Defense to “develop creative and agile concepts, technologies, and strategies across all available media” for use against the IS.
According to the officials quoted by the LA Times, the White House asked for more cyber-war options following reports that the couple responsible for the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California became radicalized on the internet and pledged allegiance to IS on social media.
“We have found no evidence of a posting on social media by either of them,” said FBI Director James Comey, speaking at a New York police counter-terrorism conference last week. Comey likewise continued to argue for “back door” access to encrypted software, though neither the San Bernardino shooters nor the attackers who killed 130 people in Paris last month used encryption to communicate.
On the other hand, FBI and intelligence officials have resisted efforts to shut down the terrorists’ communications, arguing that doing so would interfere with US efforts to spy on the extremists. Shutting down the internet in Syria and Iraq would also affect US-backed rebels, opposition groups and humanitarian workers, the unnamed officials explained to the Times.
While the US has mapped out the locations of “media centers” where IS produces its propaganda, Washington has been reluctant to bomb them out of fear of civilian casualties, anonymous officials said earlier this month.
Scholars at universities and think tanks who spoke to the media did not believe that going after IS communications was really worth it, either.
“Sitting there trying to play whack-a-mole to knock these communications platforms off can be so complicated and so resource intensive and only marginally effective,” John D. Cohen, a former counter-terrorism official who now teaches at Rutgers University, told the LA Times.
Cutting off messages may appear to be an easy fix for the more complex problem of terrorism, Brookings Institution fellow Will McCants told Mother Jones. “If your policy is out of whack, no amount of messaging is going to fix it,” he added.
Frustrated by the lack of official cyber action, the hacktivist collective Anonymous launched its own “Operation ISIS” against the terror group following the deadly Paris attacks, vowing to out IS supporters and take down their emails, accounts and websites.
“From now on, there is no safe place for you online,” Anonymous declared.
The effort appears to have rattled some Western officials, who suggested the activists ought to leave that sort of thing to professionals.
“It is better, frankly, if Anonymous leaves this type of thing to the authorities of the state who know, frankly, better what the best strategy and the best methodologies are here,” Jamie Shea, NATO deputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges, told Euronews.
The collective has developed tools that might be better than any available to world governments to go after IS online, Anonymous representative Alex Poucher told RT.