Since its creation in 2009, US Cyber Command has focused its efforts mostly on sophisticated cyber-actors on the world stage, states like Iran, Russia, and North Korea. It acts mostly in the new realm of cyber-conflict, in which states can take digital shots at one another without getting too worried about starting a real shooting war. But now, the American war on ISIS is blurring the lines between digital and kinetic conflict, opening a new cyber-front in the physical world: For the first time in its short history, the US military’s Cyber Command will now run its own aggressive operations as part of the War on Terror, and even augment regular, lethal military strikes with cyber capabilities.
The announcement came as President Obama prepared to discuss the war on ISIS in Hanover, Germany earlier this week, where he met with world leaders and laid out this new cyber initiative, among others. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work has the key quote encapsulating the effort: “We are dropping cyberbombs… We have never done that before.”
Indeed, until now the cyber war on ISIS has been mostly confined to disruption of communications. While ISIS has always been vulnerable to attack online, if only thanks to the youth and modernity of its members, messing with their Twitter accounts simply cannot do the job on its own. If it could, Anonymous would be the most beloved group in the world by now. What we’re talking about here is functionally very different; from diverting ISIS’ troop payment transfers to sending its fighters fake military coordinates, this is cyber as a technical use of military force.
According to Brigham Young professor of law Eric Jensen, there have been basically three major, publicly known cyber-attacks that probably constitute a use of force under international law: Stuxnet, a devastating 2012 attack on the Saudi Aramco oil company, and a recent, rather terrifying attack on Swedish air traffic control. It is possible that this particular cyber-campaign won’t affect that total number of attacks, since ISIS is not a legitimate state. Still, if “cyberbombs” do prove useful against ISIS, we can expect the strategy to continue against real states, as the US rolls out these capabilities to complement attacks in other theaters.
For instance, we don’t currently know if the US attack on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan had a cyber component, perhaps taking down the local aircraft tracking systems. If the US launches a similar mission in a few years’ time, the use of cyber weapons to complement real ones will likely be totally routine. Cyber-attacking national infrastructure to support attacks with lethal consequences could change the severity of an otherwise isolated incident, a serious concern with nations already threatening to take cyber incursions as provocative acts of war.
Now, you might wonder what good a “cyberbomb” could do in this case — used against a reasonably modern nation like Iran, sure, but a band of medieval thugs like ISIS? At this point, though, it’s almost impossible to insulate yourself from the effectiveness of cyber war. Al-Qaeda chose to train and sometimes live in literal caves, and yet they still had to use potentially hackable, jammable technology to communicate and coordinate, especially if they were under active attack at the time. Not even the parallel universe of ISIS territory can keep out the modern world to the extent that cyber war becomes ineffective.
ISIS is trying to run a literal war, as opposed to Al-Qaeda’s figurative one, and that means they must hold territory, collect taxes, buy or manufacture supplies, provide (meager) services, and more. There are more than enough points of attack for any cyber warfare outfit, and many of those weaknesses could be debilitating if hit hard enough.
We’ve already seen the effectiveness of blowing up their physical cash shipments with bombs, and now, Cyber Command is messing with their books. ISIS commanders have reportedly become aware that sophisticated hacking is altering their records — we don’t know the details, but this presumably means that the Western attackers are changing the books, rather than deleting them, which would make financial organization all but impossible. Fighters are reportedly deserting the terrorist organization due to low pay, so we should expect some good returns if Cyber Command can make it impossible to get the right amount of pay to the right people, on a regular basis.
Cyber Command will also basically weaponize forum trolling. They’ve already infiltrated some of ISIS’ communications networks with fake identities, hiding or posing as real commanders so they could learn the group’s habits. Now, they hope to exploit this access to distribute false information — like, change the coordinates of a meeting so terrorist leaders drive into a nice open area within easy striking distance of a nearby American drone. At the least, Cyber Command could introduce an element of doubt into every order, or bog ISIS down with unwieldy authentication routines.
The options are virtually endless. They could help shut down a bank to keep it from offloading data right before a missile strike. They could turn off some vital cooling system in a facility so it destroys itself and becomes useless. They could make easy pickings of an ISIS officer by hacking his newer-model car and driving it into a wall. The future of war is going to be very different than the past — and today, the US took a big step toward making that future a reality.