Senior Pentagon leaders on Monday revealed the military’s first use of cyber warfare operations against the Islamic State terrorist group they said are aimed at disrupting its military communications and operations.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the use of cyber attacks against ISIS control centers in Syria and Iraq is a new warfare capability.
The operations are being carried out to “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,” Carter told reporters at the Pentagon, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State.
“So this is something that’s new in this war, not something you would’ve seen back in the Gulf War,” Carter added. “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.”
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said cyber warfare attacks are being used as part of the overall military campaign to defeat ISIS, including cutting off the group’s strongholds in Syria and Iraq, namely Raqqa and Mosul.
“I think conceptually, that’s exactly the same thing we’re trying to do in the cyber world,” Dunford said.
“In other words, we’re trying to both physically and virtually isolate ISIL, limit their ability to conduct command and control, limit their ability to communicate with each other, limit their ability to conduct operations locally and tactically.”
Last week, apparently in response to the stepped-up cyber warfare attacks on ISIS, supporters of the group threatened to attack Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter chief Jack Dorsey. Both social media groups recently cracked down on the group’s use of their platforms.
Carter and Dunford spoke to reporters at the Pentagon, outlining plans to enhance efforts against ISIS in the Middle East as well as countering its spread to North Africa and other regions.
Cyber warfare involves the use of trained computer hackers, backed by electronic and human intelligence, to break into foreign computer networks and information systems. Once inside, the attackers can implant viruses or other malware to disrupt information systems or fool them into taking action that can cause damage to their organization and its information technology.
The capability has been developed for the past several decades by the National Security Agency, which has been breaking into foreign networks for intelligence gathering since the 1980s.
The use of military cyber warfare operations is different from the covert intelligence operation, known as Olympic Games, targeting Iran’s nuclear program in the late 2000s.
Carter also said cyber warfare is different from traditional electronic warfare, which has been used in previous conflicts to disrupt communications or disable radar.
“It is beyond that. We do that, too. The two enable one another and complement each other,” Carter said.
Carter said the new cyber warfare capability is being distributed to all U.S. war-fighting forces through the Cyber Command.
“Cybercom itself was devised specifically to make the United States proficient and powerful in this tool of war,” Carter said.
Dunford said the use of cyber attacks in Syria and Iraq will not be the same as methods used in other conflicts.
“You can’t replicate what we’re doing today against ISIL in Iraq and Syria elsewhere in the world,” Dunford said. “What you can do is leverage the tools that have been developed for this particular operation, for other operations down the road.”
Dunford declined to provide details of the operations in order to prevent the enemy learning about the activities, including the timing, location, and operational methods of the attacks.
“We don’t want them to have information that will allow them to adapt over time,” the four-star general said. “We want them to be surprised when we conduct cyber operations, and frankly, they’re going to experience some friction that’s associated with us and some friction that’s just associated with the normal course of events in dealing in the information age.”
The comments by Carter and Dunford are the first acknowledged use of cyber warfare in a conflict since Cyber Command, a component of the U.S. Strategic Command, was set up in 2010.
The command, co-located with the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Md., remains one of the military’s most secret organizations.
The command is still in the process of creating 133 cyber mission forces that will be deployed with the military’s combatant and functional commands.
For example, the U.S. Pacific Command currently has a group known as CyberPac that supports military operations and countermeasures for that command. U.S. Forces Korea also has a cyber mission force charged with countering North Korean cyber attacks and conducting offensive operations against the North Koreans in wartime.
Carter dismissed concerns that blocking social media sites will limit intelligence gathering on the group.
Sometimes the efforts to block social media use drives terrorists to use other means of communicating, but some of those other communications are easier to intercept, he said.
The effort to use cyber attacks is a necessary part of the military campaign against ISIS, Carter said.
“We can’t allow them to freely command and control forces that are enemy forces, so it’s just like any other war,” he said. “We have to attack their command-and-control. This is one of the ways of doing it. But it may have, actually, a beneficial effect of driving them to the kinds of communications that it’s in fact easier for us to disrupt, and listen to also.”
Dunford said the potential loss of intelligence as a consequence of cyber operations is examined carefully, and is “one of the variables we consider in whether or not you conduct an operation and how to conduct an operation.”
The cyber and other attacks are part of the effort to put pressure on the terrorist group, which controls large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.
“We’re trying to make life difficult for ISIL and we’re trying to stay step ahead of them,” Dunford said. “So we’re trying to force them to make changes. We’re trying to disrupt their communications, and then we can anticipate some of the adaptations they’re going to make and be a step ahead of them, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”