ISIS cyber capability judged more 'aspirational' than operational

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ISIS terrorists have announced their intention to establish a "digital caliphate" for launching attacks on U.S. critical infrastructure.

Interviews with cybersecurity experts and questions posed to public officials reveal an assessment of the cyber warfare capabilities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that, while potentially dangerous, remains more aspirational than operational.

It is common for a terrorist group like ISIS to develop cyber capabilities to complement their ambitions to carry out violent attacks, experts say. But being slick with social media is a world apart from being able to hack segments of U.S. critical infrastructure.

ISIS terrorists have said online that they aim to establish a "digital caliphate" for launching attacks on U.S. infrastructure, according to a Sept. 14 Fox News report. Doing so might prove difficult, but it wouldn’t cost much to begin probing networks. One could buy a tablet for a few hundred dollars, set up some encryption tools and start running vulnerability analyses of code used by critical infrastructure like the electric grid, said Tony Cole, vice president and global government CTO at FireEye, a network security firm.

Nonetheless, such a garage operation may not get very far because of U.S. anti-encryption capabilities and officials’ apparent scrutiny of ISIS's online movements.

"Clearly ISIL has been very aggressive in the use of media and the use of technology and the use of the internet," Adm. Michael Rogers, head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, said at a Sept. 16 cybersecurity conference in Washington, D.C., using the administration’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. "It's something I’m watching."

"We need to assume that there will be a cyber dimension increasingly in almost any scenario that we’re dealing with. Counterterrorism is no different," said Rogers, who declined to elaborate on the group's capabilities in a public setting.

Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the House Homeland Security Committee on Sept. 17 that ISIS's ability to carry out cyberattacks is "aspirational."

Rogers' Cyber Command will be watching, and defending government networks, but will it go on the offensive and disable some of ISIS's online presence? That, like a lot of information on the terrorist organization’s cyber capabilities, is classified.

Cole said he hopes Cyber Command attacks ISIS online because it would be an important complement to air strikes, but that doing so is a "double-edged sword." U.S. officials would have to weigh the trade-off between silencing ISIS’s online mouthpieces and using them to glean intelligence.

Threat could grow more sophisticated

ISIS is one of several jihadist groups operating in the power vacuums of Iraq and Syria.

John Cohen, who until June was a senior counterterrorism adviser in the Department of Homeland Security, says a careful study of those extremists reveals patterns in their online capabilities.

"We know that they have been able to adjust communication protocols and … the technologies that they are using to facilitate their communication in a pretty sophisticated way," he said, referring to jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria generally.

"I have seen some attempts at cyberattacks that I wouldn’t necessarily qualify as sophisticated," such as website defacing, added Cohen, who is now chief strategy adviser at Encryptics, a data protection firm. Extremists in Iraq and Syria have also shown an interest in varying their cyberattack methodologies, he said.

Cole believes that ISIS's bread and butter is using social media as a recruiting tool and isn’t yet capable of sophisticated hacking, but added, "their cyber capabilities continue to grow."

Whatever the asymmetric state of play in cyberspace between ISIS and the United States, Washington would be wise to take nothing for granted on the nature of the threat, according to retired Gen. Michael Hayden, former head of the NSA and Central Intelligence Agency.

"These guys have surprised us in the past, and so it'd be good not to underestimate them," he told FCW.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.


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