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Unraveling ISIS’s Web Presence

The U.S. military is going on the offensive in cyberspace against the Islamic State, as The Wall Street Journal reports:

The U.S. military is using new digital weapons to try to neutralize Islamic State’s ability to communicate, control forces and manage finances in Syria and Iraq, top Pentagon officials said Monday, providing fresh details about the newest front against the terror network.

U.S. officials have used a number of measures to counter Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. But many of these efforts have failed to prevent the group from using technology to recruit, plan attacks and move resources and money. Islamic State has used its geographic stronghold—most notably in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq—to train and plan attacks in the Middle East and elsewhere, and its use of technology is central to this effort.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the new military campaign, led by the Pentagon’s U.S. Cyber Command, is taking place particularly in Syria “to interrupt ISIL’s command and control, to cause them to lose confidence in their networks, to overload their networks so that they can’t function.”

Last June, James Van De Velde wrote an essay in The American Interest about the importance of attacking ISIS’s sophisticated, media-savvy, and decentralized web presence. As he wrote:

Given that al-Qaeda and the Islamic State use cyberspace to attack us in the real world, it follows that cyberspace should constitute no special sanctuary for them. Yet for all practical purposes it does. Their presence in cyberspace is more or less uncontested, enabling the internet to serve well as a “drive-thru” radicalization asset. Anyone from anywhere can read the radical ideology of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State unmolested, getting their fill of pseudo-intellectual ideology and bomb-making instructions.

Western governments and media companies have been slow to clamp down on jihadi communications, leery of the specter of censorship and of the never ending game of digital Whack-a-Mole necessary to keep Internet forums terrorist-free. ISIS has capitalized on this, both by encouraging a steady trickle of disaffected glory-seekers to seek their fortune fighting for the caliphate, and by inciting sympathizers to act on their own in Western countries.

As Van De Velde pointed out, there is no guarantee that if left unmolested, ISIS (or other terrorist groups) couldn’t scale up their digital warfare. All it takes is one talented expert-level hacker to cause  serious havoc, and the track record of the United States against cyber attack doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. In the 21st century, the so-called Fifth Domain of warfare will become increasingly important in countering radical ideologies. It’s good to hear that the Department of Defense is stepping up to that fight.

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