Undermining ISIS Online

White House rhetoric over the past few months has suggested that ISIS is growing weaker. These claims crumble, however, in light of the terrorist group’s recent attacks on Paris and Brussels, as well as their growing strength in Syria and Iraq. 

Although American forces have succeeded in recapturing key cities such as Ramadi, the Islamic State continues to expand its sphere of 

influence both within the Middle East and beyond. As of last Wednesday, ISIS has claimed responsibility for or inspired nearly 90 attacks in 21 countries, including the United States. The death toll of these attacks stands at nearly 1,400 people.

Clearly, neither traditional military involvement nor American intelligence gathering methods are working. ISIS always seems to be a step ahead. The terror group relies on social media sites and encryption to recruit and carry out operations, making it difficult for U.S. intelligence to pin down where and when attacks will occur.

Weapons alone cannot win the war against ISIS. The United States must change its tactics so that it fights smarter instead of harder.

Last week, military officials took a step in the right direction. For the first time since its inception six years ago, U.S. military officials directed Cyber Command, the NSA’s military counterpart, to mount computer network attacks against the Islamic State. Until recently, Cyber Command focused solely on Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, all countries from which cyber attacks on the United States frequently originate.

By implementing cyber attacks, military officials hope to disrupt ISIS’s ability to attract new members, circulate orders, and carry out day-to-day functions. The Obama administration also hopes that publicizing this new campaign will aid in deterring potential recruits and scaring ISIS commanders.

Officials say that the attacks will involve infiltrating ISIS networks to learn the online habits of their commanders. Then Cyber Command will imitate the ISIS commanders or alter their messages in order to lure ISIS militants into areas more vulnerable to American ground forces or drone strikes.

Officials have also hinted at using cyber attacks to interrupt electronic transfers and misdirect payments. As General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “We’re trying to both physically and virtually isolate [ISIS], 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.”

In addition, Lisa O. Monaco, Obama’s top adviser for counterterrorism, has led the effort to disrupt recruiting on social media, including taking down social media posts and developing a counter narrative about the group’s brutality. Corporations including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are also growing more efficient at finding and removing Islamic State posts, a tactic they can pursue without court orders because the posts violate the companies’ terms of service.

While cyber warfare could open up a new front in the fight against ISIS, there is some concern that the cyber attacks will backfire. For instance, members of ISIS might stop using their current communication channels in favor of ones that are harder to find, penetrate, or de-encrypt.

Despite the risks, Cyber Command should move forward with the cyber attacks against ISIS. They may be our best hope of defeating an elusive enemy.