The Obama administration has launched the first cyberwar against the Islamic State, a war that, coupled with real, not virtual, fighting, is producing one of the most encouraging on-the-ground successes in the conflict — sharply cutting into the number of foreign fighters sneaking into Syria to join the group’s terrorist army and its so-called Islamic caliphate.
The Pentagon says an Islamic State recruitment drive that attracted 2,000 a month last year to join the fight in Syria and Iraq has slowed to fewer than 500. The squeeze means the army of about 35,000 has shrunk to some 20,000, leaving fewer fighters to conduct two big battles ahead: Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa, the caliphate’s “capital,” in Syria.
Officials say the human pipeline is tightening partly because of an aggressive online countermessaging campaign directed by the State Department, a battle of ideas that tells Muslims that Raqqa is a dead end, literally.
“There is a global coalition that’s conducting campaigns of messaging to convince people not to get up and leave their countries and travel to Iraq and Syria to try to join the caliphate,” said Army Col. Christopher Garver, a former top military spokesman in Baghdad. “We want to convince people that the caliphate is not a real thing. We’re in the process of breaking it up. It’s not worth leaving your home and coming to Iraq and Syria to join the caliphate.”
Alberto Fernandez, who once led the State Department’s strategic communications, is skeptical that the countermessaging has had much of an effect. The single biggest factor, he said, is simply that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is steadily losing territory to U.S.-backed Iraqi troops and Syrian rebels.
“The most effective messaging that is happening against ISIS today is military defeat,” he said. “It’s harder and harder for them to put the best face on what is a long series of defeats on the ground. The biggest countermessaging success is that they are slowly losing ground, and that makes them look bad.”
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The Islamic State’s message had been, “‘Come immigrate to this perfect state and bring the family.’ There’s less of that today,” he said.
The State Department has taken the U.S. brand off most of its programs, “which means maybe it’s more effective, but it is also difficult for you to see, for the media to monitor,” Mr. Fernandez said. “There is a lot of fuzziness in what they are doing. Some of the stuff they trot out publicly doesn’t seem to be very effective.”
Mr. Fernandez, an Arabic-speaking former ambassador, pointed to one U.S. video that showed hardships in Mosul, such as the lack of garbage collection.
“If you are motivated enough to leave the West, travel thousands of miles, repudiate your family and nationality, you are probably not really focused on whether ISIS picks up the garbage or not,” he said.
The State Department sponsored a competition among students to produce anti-extremist videos. A top finalist, now posted on Facebook and produced by the Rochester Institute of Technology, was titled: “ExOutExtremism.”
But it does not define the exact nature of the “extremism” in question. That follows President Obama’s edict against the use of the phrase “radical Islamic extremism,” on grounds that the religion has nothing to do with the Islamic State and that the phrase only helps the group’s recruiting efforts.
“Using the word ‘extremism’ is extraordinarily vague language,” Mr. Fernandez said.
On some platform, even if it is not U.S.-created, the message has to be made clear that the Islamic State’s overriding ideology is Islamic Salafi jihadism in a form that permits the killing of all nonbelievers, he said.
The U.S. is fighting its cyberwar on two fronts. The countermessaging works in tandem with the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command’s covert, direct assaults on the Islamic State’s computer networks and internet connections.
In the long history of warfare, it marks the first time the U.S. has declared it is trying to disable an enemy’s command structure not with armaments, but with malware.
“This is something that’s new in this war, not something you would’ve seen back in the Gulf War,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters. “But it’s an important new capability, and it is an important use of our Cyber Command and the reason that Cyber Command was established in the first place.”
Against the Islamic State, there is now an air war, a ground war and a virtual war.
The airstrikes can be measured in targets hit, including the Islamic State’s cybercenters; the ground war in territory taken. But a metric for how well the cybercampaign is going is more elusive. It is almost impossible to pinpoint how many Muslims have turned away from radicalism because of countermessaging. Making the measurement even harder is the secret nature of Cyber Command.
“The challenge in this is: How do you prove a negative?” said Mr. Fernandez. “How do you prove that somebody doesn’t do something or doesn’t join ISIS? That’s kind of the gold standard that everybody lacks. I think [the State Department] lacks it as well.”
The U.S. opposition messaging is led by the State Department’s 7-month-old Global Engagement Center. Linked to similar operations in the Middle East and Asia, the center staff go on social media to directly counter the Islamic State’s propaganda on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms.
When an allied cyberwarrior spots an Islamic State post urging trips to the caliphate or urging followers to attack at home in the name of Islam, a countermessage is launched. The State Department estimated that for every single pro-Islamic State message on Twitter, there is immediately a counterargument by at least six Twitter accounts.
The combination of real bombs, counter Twitter feeds and hacking seems to be working based on two metrics: fewer foreign fighters and a 45 percent decline in Islamic State activity, according to a State Department assessment.
The Global Engagement Center’s director is Michael D. Lumpkin, who served as the Pentagon’s top civilian overseeing special operations, the men who hunt and kill terrorists.
Mr. Lumpkin is making rapid changes, such as discarding English in favor of local languages in countermessages. The center is also avoiding messages branded “U.S. Government” and is relying on people closest to the problem: Muslim imams, international nonprofits and partnerships with nation state cyberwarfare centers in the Middle East and Asia.
The State Department helps such operations with money and staff. Within the Global Engagement Center is a “fusion center” made up of the State Department, the CIA, the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command, which oversees the war in Iraq and Syria.
The 70-person center also has stopped going toe-to-toe with jihadis and opted for a less-confrontational messaging strategy.
Among the big challenges are identifying people targeted by jihadis and developing ways to prevent recruitment. The center has set up a data analytics operations to scan social media and find a target audience.
There is outreach to Silicon Valley, which conceived and manages the platforms — Google’s YouTube, Twitter, Facebook — so embraced by the Islamic State and other radical movements. Twitter announced last month that it had taken down over 300,000 accounts run by extremists.
One “good news, bad news” storyline is that the decision by leading social media companies to terminate accounts has pushed Islamic State operators to encrypted platforms such as Telegram. The good news is the extremists are relinquishing open platforms where they can readily reach millions of people. The bad news is that the more restrictive platforms allow them to communicate in secret.
“Two years ago, when this started, they had kind of free rein on Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube and their message was one of, ‘Come and join this glorious movement of the caliphate,’ and we’ve really reversed that trend,” Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June. “For every single pro-ISIL Twitter handle, there’s now six anti-ISIL kind of combating them, 24/7, in cyberspace.”
The front lines in the cyberwar with the Islamic State are command posts such as the Sawab Center in the United Arab Emirates.
In partnership with Washington, Sawab tries to identify susceptible youths and ping them with counterextremist arguments. The center also has issued a series of YouTube productions showing the Islamic State not as a professed Islamic utopia, but as a Murder Inc. that tortures and rapes women.
One production, “How Daesh Treats Farmers,” tells how the terrorists — Daesh is a dismissive Arabic name for the Islamic State — confiscate crops, kidnap farmers’ sons as recruits and cut off water supplies. It includes an interview with a Muslim woman held as a sex slave and raped by numerous Islamic State members. “I still wake up smelling them,” she says on camera, her face covered.
Other productions highlight moderate Muslims imams who preach against violence.
“I went there to visit them,” Mr. McGurk said of Sawab. “They’re young, smart, engaged, dynamic, incredible young people, Muslims from the UAE and from the area that want to fight ISIL online. They’re doing a great job.”
Similar cyberwar centers have been set up in Malaysia and Europe, he said.
On the offensive
After more than a year of airstrikes against the Islamic State, Mr. Carter appeared in the Pentagon briefing room to talk about the new front. It would entail cyberwarfare but not the information war per se.
U.S. Cyber Command had been given the authority to attack Islamic State computer networks directly. As bombs fall on Islamic State fighters, vehicles and headquarters, Cyber Command would be bombarding the terrorist group’s internet operations with malware.
Mr. Carter explained his strategy: “In the counter-ISIL campaign, particularly in Syria, [the aim is] to interrupt and disrupt ISIL’s command and control, to cause them to lose confidence in their networks, to overload their network so that they can’t function, and do all of these things that will interrupt their ability to command and control forces there, control the population and the economy.”
Top Pentagon officials are reluctant to detail specific tactics they will employ.
“Because the methods we’re using are new, some of them will be surprising and some of them are applicable to other challenges that I described, other than ISIL, that we have around the world,” Mr. Carter said.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “We don’t want them to have information that will allow them to adapt over time. We want them to be surprised when we conduct cyberoperations.”
It is likely that the Cyber Command is employing the tricks of the hacker’s trade. Induce an Islamic State commander to open a message that releases malware, that in turn lets the U.S. enter an enemy computer network or crashes the entire system. The U.S. is likely tricking Islamic State operatives to believe they are talking to fellow members when in fact they are talking to people at Fort Meade, Maryland, the command’s base.
Navy Adm. Michael S. Rogers, who heads the NSA and Cyber Command, has told Congress he plans to build a “cybermissions force” — both offensive and defensive — of 133 teams by 2018. Each team has 30 to 65 members. He said some teams have embedded with U.S. Central Command with “offensive capability” against the Islamic State, although he declined to discuss in detail the types of attacks they have carried out.
He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Islamic State followers posing as migrants in Europe probably have the ability to communicate on secure messaging apps with leaders in Raqqa.
One development is clear: The Islamic State’s online operations are being attacked, which is one reason the group has turned to social media to communicate.
“ISIL’s main online forum is always under attack, and it is speculated by many that it’s by Western government agencies led by the U.S.,” said Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, a leading tracker of jihadi social media.
Analysts assess that as thousands of jihadi accounts are terminated, thousands of new ones can spring up and generate propaganda before they too are terminated. The Islamic State favors a web library based in San Francisco, where followers can download and spread messages before the originals are taken down.
Cyber Command spokesman Joseph R. Holstead, citing Adm. Rogers’ talk at the National Press Club this summer, told The Washington Times that U.S. officials are reluctant to provide too much information to the enemy.
“We have publicly acknowledged that we are doing offensive actions right now against ISIL in cyber and the fight in Syria and Iraq,” Mr. Holstead said. “And I’ll be very upfront with you and tell you I’m just not going to go into any more details. We’re in a fight against an adaptive learning adversary, and I have no desire to give that adversary greater insights.”
In the kinetic war, the air campaign targets online operators, such as the British hacker Junaid Hussein, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike last year in Syria.
The Islamic State’s information operations took a bigger blow last month when the face of its terrorist army, Mohammed al-Adnani, was killed in Aleppo, Syria, by an airstrike. Al-Adnani was Islamic State founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s chief strategist and propagandist and directed operations to seize and defend territory.
The Islamic State has tried to fight back with a hacking operation of its own. It was reportedly able to temporarily scramble Central Command’s Twitter account as well as other Defense Department sites. Mr. Carter takes the threat so seriously that the Pentagon chief invited hackers to the Pentagon this year to test its cyberdefenses.
Mr. Fernandez is now vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute, monitoring jihadi traffic every day. He said Islamic State social media traffic is down by about two-thirds. Operators are being killed. Accounts have been terminated.
“But there is still a lot of stuff and they can surge and get their stuff out at will,” he said. “So if there is disrupting going on, it’s not able to totally disrupt the message. I really don’t see evidence of massive disruption in terms of propaganda.”