The Pentagon is struggling to counter the information warfare efforts of the Islamic State terrorist group that are effectively exploiting U.S. social media and Western press freedoms to recruit jihadists and communicate among themselves.
Bureaucratic red tape within the military, specifically the U.S. Central Command and Pentagon, is preventing rapid responses to IS propaganda and activities, Inside the Ring has learned from knowledgeable sources.
One problem is the cumbersome approval process needed before U.S. information warriors can carry out counter-actions online. Prior to doing so, they’re required to go through several layers of approvals along a lengthy chain of command.
As a result, in some cases U.S. information operations against IS propaganda were delayed for days or weeks, often making the responses ineffective or useless.
Additionally, U.S. information operations have been weakened and limited in conducting counter-information attacks because of concerns the American hand will be exposed. Another problem has been fear among U.S. higher-ups that IS will step up both information and kinetic attacks in response.
Outright lies — such as false reports of U.S. troops deployments — are more easily countered. But those cases are infrequent. Aggressive online programs to dissuade would-be jihadists and expose IS propaganda programs and activities have been stifled. Counter cyber attacks against known IS operators also have been limited.
The U.S. information warfare effort has been hampered by officials have said is a cultural bias against propaganda activities, which are sometime regarded as contrary to U.S. freedoms. That is said to be changing, however, as terrorist groups like IS and al Qaeda are increasing their use of soft power methods to attack the West. Nation-state information warfare, particularly by China, Russia and Iran, also is gradually being recognized as a growing strategic threat.
The IS information threat was highlighted by the alert issued last week raising the security threat level on U.S. military bases. The alert was prompted by an IS-linked hacker group that posted a notice online warning of an “another surprise for America” — interpreted as a possible attack.
As a result, U.S. Northern Command commander, Adm. Bill Gortney, ordered military bases to tighten security from “Alpha” to “Bravo” level around the country. Force-protection level Bravo is ordered in response to a somewhat predictable terrorist threat.
The group making the threat was the same hacker group that successfully conducted a cyber attack on Central Command’s social media accounts in January, replacing web pages with IS propaganda and the name “Cybercaliphate.”
The group conducted some low-level cyber attacks against several Pentagon web sites last week in attempted “denial-of-service” cyber strikes whose impact was limited.
One example of IS’s online agility is its use of Twitter. IS operatives and supporters are using multiple Twitter accounts to send well-crafted videos and propaganda materials. Usually, IS terrorists open up to six Twitter accounts, with successive accounts being used after one or more of the accounts are shut down by the social media giant, often at U.S. government urging.
One effective propaganda and recruiting video was posted on a Russian Internet site and targeted Central Asia Muslims. The five-minute video was described as extremely professional in both content and production values.
Another trend is a recent shift by IS away from Web-based social media sites to mobile devices that are being used to communicate through text messaging, and propagandize by mobile videos shared directly between hand-held devices.
Additionally, IS information operations to inspire Islamists to conduct attacks in the United States also are shifting to the so-called “Dark Web,” the gray Internet underworld used by criminals to share information and software.
IS also appears to have studied information dissemination methods used by neo-Nazi groups, in order to communicate and spread their message in the English-speaking world.
The target audience for IS includes Islamist sympathizers who are not directly linked to the Syrian/Iraqi based IS terror group.
New Net Assessment chief
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has selected a candidate for the influential post of director of the Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon’s future warfare and worst-case scenario think tank.
The selection is said to be James. H. Baker, currently the principal deputy director for strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff, and a key aide to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. In the past Mr. Baker was head of Joint Chiefs chairman’s action group under then-Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.
Some military and defense officials expressed concern that Mr. Baker will reverse decades of innovative work inside the secretive Net Assessment office led by Andrew Marshall, the 93-year-old academic who stepped down in January.
Mr. Marshall was known as the Pentagon’s “Yoda” and was the only official to hold the director’s post since the office was created in 1973.
Mr. Marshall appointed his deputy, Andrew May, as acting director who was a candidate for the top post. A third candidate who lost out in the selection process was Thomas Ehrhard, currently an aide to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work.
What concerns several China hawks is Mr. Baker’s reputation as a left-of-center analyst who has sought to minimize foreign threats, especially those from China. Mr. Baker disclosed his conciliatory views on China and advocated for greater unrestricted engagement at a 2013 speech to the Naval War College.
As ONA director, Mr. Baker would be in charge of the office’s annual $15 million budget, and have direct access to Mr. Carter. The Pentagon sought to downgrade the office last year by placing it within the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy. But Congress passed legislation blocking the move and added an additional $5 million for assessments.
Another problem for critics is Mr. Baker’s past role as senior official in the costly F-35 development program. The stealth jet program suffered cost overruns amounting to tens of millions of dollars and left the new frontline fighter with the dubious reputation of being the most expensive aircraft ever built. Unit costs for the three-version jet skyrocketed to between $98 million to $116 million per aircraft.
A Republican foreign policy adviser predicted to Inside the Ring: “James H. Baker will be fired on Jan. 20, 2017 if a Republican is elected president. He’s too partisan and too left wing. Frankly, Hillary Clinton may fire him too.”
A defense official confirmed Mr. Baker will be the next ONA director but declined to comment on his critics.
State issues foreign booze warning
The State Department’s security office recently sent out a warning notice to U.S. companies operating facilities overseas urging Americans to avoid drinking local booze.
The May 5 notice from the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a public-private entity that works with State’s Office of Diplomatic Security, stated that the warning followed the deaths last month in Nigeria of 23 people poisoned after drinking a local gin called ogogoro that apparently was tainted with a pesticide.
“The deadly situation in Nigeria underscores the need for awareness that consuming alcohol abroad comes with various risks that are not necessarily prevalent in the U.S.,” the four-page OSAC notice said.
The alert advised travelers or workers abroad to avoid drinking homemade or counterfeit alcoholic drinks around the world often made with varying levels of toxicity. For example, last year, 24 people died and dozens were injured from drinking a Kenyan bootleg alcohol called kathuvuria, and some 31 people died and 160 injured in India from drinking booze tainted with methyl alcohol.
The alert also warns Americans not to engage in drinking competitions with locals: “Even Australian PM Tony Abbott was celebrated ‘skolling’ (chugging) a schooner (2/3 of a pint) of beer before flipping the empty glass on top of his head at a pub,” the report said.
In South Korea, Americans were warned to avoid getting drunk at parties with business partners, often on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, as part of South Koreans’ efforts to learn “true personalities in a tradition known as hoesik,” the report said.
“This level of inebriation can lead to cultural misunderstandings, ruined business relations or, worse, an increase in exposure to criminality,” the report added.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.