The US military has launched a full-scale cyber offensive in its war against the Islamic State (Isis) in a bid to disrupt and weaken the terrorist organisation. The cyber campaign is the latest strategy being implemented by the US, alongside traditional weapons, to cut off the organisation's communications channels, recruitment efforts and circulation of orders online.
Specialising in digital surveillance, the National Security Agency (NSA) has been closely monitoring IS militants for years. However, the Department of Defense's Cyber Command — the NSA's military counterpart — "had run virtually no operations against what has become the most dangerous terrorist organisation in the world", according to the New York Times. The agency has primarily focused on Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, where most cyberattacks on the US often originate.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced earlier in April that the US Cyber Command had been given its "first wartime assignment".
"We are dropping cyberbombs," Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work told CNN earlier in April. "We have never done that before. Just like we have an air campaign, I want to have a cyber campaign. I want to use all the space capabilities I have."
The IS continues to successfully use social media and other online messaging platforms, targeted video propaganda and encrypted communication to recruit new members, promote its message and launch low-scale digital disruptions through cyberattacks.
To combat these efforts, the Cyber Command has begun placing "implants" within IS's networks to study the behaviour of its officials and eventually mimic them to manipulate messages and redirect militants in a way that leaves them exposed to US ground or drone operations. Other cyber tactics being used include digital attacks to interrupt electronic financial transfers and misdirect payments, making it more difficult for them to pay their fighters, according to the Times.
The US government's decision to go public with information about its digital operations and use of new cyberweapons is a tactic in itself as well. The administration, which has previously refused to discuss details about its operations, has made a strategic pivot to reveal such information in order to degrade the enemy's trust in its own communications and possibly deter some activities.
In February, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasised the need for the element of surprise in launching cyber attacks.
"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," said Dunford. "I'll be one of the first ones arguing that that's about all we should talk about.... We want them to be surprised when we conduct cyberoperations. 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."
However, some intelligence officials have expressed concern that ramping up cyberattacks against IS would force them to move to new communications channels or drive them underground, making them even more difficult to monitor and target.
"It's a delicate balance," Susan Rice, White House national security adviser, told the Times. "We still have to keep our eye on the Russia-China state-sponsored activity, but this was a new mission, one where we have to balance the collection equities against the disruption equities."