The US no longer thinks that it’s enough to hurt ISIS through airstrikes and cutting off propaganda channels — it’s starting a full-on digital warfare campaign. Cyber Command is launching its first attacks against ISIS’ digital infrastructure in a bid to disrupt its communications and other basic functions. According to New York Times sources, this includes everything from imitating commanders to interrupting payments to fighters. This, in turn, could slow down ISIS as it second-guesses its moves for fear of being led into an American trap.
This represents a big shift in strategy not just in the fight against ISIS, but for the US’ approach to cyberwarfare. Typically, the country has reserved cyberattacks for Iran, North Korea and other nations which might pose a physical threat. They’ve been preventative measures. Here, the military is using them as part of an active (if limited) conflict — they’re as much a weapon as a bomb or missile. Although it’s too soon to say if these internet assaults will be effective (they may lead ISIS to harden its online security), the very fact that they’re being used at all is noteworthy.
The goal of the new campaign is to disrupt the ability of the Islamic State to spread its message, attract new adherents, circulate orders from commanders and carry out day-to-day functions, like paying its fighters. A benefit of the administration’s exceedingly rare public discussion of the campaign, officials said, is to rattle the Islamic State’s commanders, who have begun to realize that sophisticated hacking efforts are manipulating their data. Potential recruits may also be deterred if they come to worry about the security of their communications with the militant group.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter is among those who have publicly discussed the new mission, but only in broad terms, and this month the deputy secretary of defense, Robert O. Work, was more colorful in describing the effort.
“We are dropping cyberbombs,” Mr. Work said. “We have never done that before.”