Dropping Cyberbombs on Islamic State

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Civilian and Army cyber personnel at a Cyber Operations Center in Ft. Gordon, Georgia. (Department of Defense/Michael L. Lewis photo)

A United States Air Force cyber officer recently told me that United States Cyber Command was shifting its focus to Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS and ISIL). I was a little surprised to learn this, since it seems that China is the larger cyber threat. But after reading the recent New York Times article by David Sanger on the cyberwar against IS, the switch in focus becomes more clear.

While the National Security Agency and its military counterpart, Cyber Command, both focus on traditional threats such as China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, the ability to use cyber attacks is less available and less publicly admitted due to concern over foreign sovereignty.

But with IS, it appears that the Obama Administration has an opportunity to use Cyber Command to attack an adversary and brag about it. Deputy secretary of defense Robert Work is quoted as saying, “We are dropping cyberbombs. We have never done that before.”

If “cyberbombs” seems like a bit of a strained metaphor to you, you are not alone. From Sanger’s article:

“It should not be taken out of proportion — it is not the only tool,” [National Security Advisor Susan Rice] said when asked about Mr. Work’s “cyberbombs” comment. In fact, some of Mr. Work’s colleagues acknowledged that they had winced when he used the term, because government lawyers have gone to extraordinary lengths to narrowly limit cyberattacks to highly precise operations with as little collateral damage as possible.

But Work is not the only one using strained metaphors. The mission statement of the Air Force cyber school includes creating the “world’s most lethal cyber operators”.

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Mission statement at USAF cyber school

Silly language aside, Sanger’s piece says Cyber Command has the ability to assist in the killing of IS militants by altering the messages of IS commanders “with the aim of redirecting militants to areas more vulnerable to attack by American drones or local ground forces.” Cyber command can also disrupt IS operations by stopping or misdirecting electronic fund transfers and President Obama claims that “our cyberoperations are disrupting their command-and-control and communications.”

But the cyberwar against IS may not be one-sided. A group of pro-IS hackers called the United Cyber Caliphate has responded to the announcement to use cyberoperations against them, threatening to attack the US. In the past, pro-IS hacker groups have released target lists of US government officials and police.

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Threat by pro-IS hackers posted on Telegram

In 1998, two Chinese army colonels published a manual called Unrestricted Warfare in which they outlined warfare in the age of globalization. In it, they argued that warfare must now include “using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.” When it was written, the internet was a mere shadow of what it is today, but they argued that attacking networks would become an integral tool of tomorrow’s war.

Seventeen years later, Unrestricted Warfare’s tomorrow is now today. From Russia’s “hybrid war” in Ukraine to US cyberoperations against IS, the Chinese prediction of warfare beyond bounds has proved prescient.

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