Someone Needs to Run the US Effort to Defeat ISIS Online

Computer screens are pictured at TV5 Monde after the French television network was hacked by people claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group, in Paris, France, Thursday April 9, 2015.

Christophe Ena/AP

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Computer screens are pictured at TV5 Monde after the French television network was hacked by people claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group, in Paris, France, Thursday April 9, 2015.

Lots of government agencies are doing something; the White House needs to coordinate them.

If the United States and our allies are to reclaim the cyber battlefield from the Islamic State, we need a playbook for pushback, just as we would prepare battle plans to prosecute a war kinetically. First, we must collect online information and intelligence necessary to understand and ultimately defeat the adversary. Second, we must shut down the most noxious sources that amplify the most violent voices. Third, we must push back on ISIS’s narrative, expose its myths and falsehoods, and provide a credible and constructive alternative. 

In principle, the trio of components proposed for the playbook are complementary — but in practice, they may also interfere with one another. For instance, the information-collection efforts of various U.S. government entities may not be harmonized; or the execution of shutdown plans by one piece of the U.S. interagency effort may unwittingly interfere with the collection efforts of another. Someone must have the ability and authority to arbitrate such disputes, and deconflict these activities. Notably, kinetic strikes against high-value targets give rise to the same intelligence gain/loss equation, and are regularly resolved in favor of decisive action.

Already, multiple lines of efforts are underway. But these various initiatives need to be brought together and incorporated into a single clear and coherent plan that unites the foreign and domestic aspects of our actions. For this, an orchestra leader is needed to put the various instruments in sync and correct those that may be off-key or missing. This conductor would be responsible for uniting policy with operations; directing activities under Title 10 (Armed Forces), 50 (War and National Defense), and 22 (Foreign Relations); and bringing together the warfighting component with law enforcement and private industry, key players in the cyber domain. The position should be anchored in the Executive Office of the President, in order to ensure interagency coordination, and would sunset in 18 months in order to impart a sense of urgency and help marshal focus and resources against ISIS. And each of U.S. Cyber Command, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State (in particular the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL) would have an instrumental role in accomplishing the mission. 

The multiplicity of actors involved further complicates the situation. Shutdown of the networks and websites of ISIS and their sympathizers, and takedown of ISIS propaganda and material for example, will involve the private sector including social media and Internet service providers (ISPs). For government, the emphasis would be on facilitating the exercise rather than trying to coerce it through takedown orders. The idea would be to encourage nongovernmental entities to hunt and gather pertinent information that could be turned over to ISPs, thereby helping them to marginalize the most egregious content. Importantly, this model would also require an opportunity and mechanism for redress, should reporting from civil society somehow result in the takedown of a legitimate site. The EU’s new Internet Referral Unit refers potential terms of service violations to providers in order to reduce the amount of extremist content online.

A solid and achievable first step would be a kinetic blitzkrieg directed against selected pillars and paragons of ISIS’s cyber strategy and cyber operations.

There is also a role here for individual citizens, who can bring shutdown predicate information (term of service violation) to the attention of ISPs. While the exercise admittedly has a “whack-a-mole” character to it — in that shutting down one spot may simply result in another popping up elsewhere — the action is nevertheless valuable. By pushing the most violent extremist content to the margins, our intelligence collection may be improved because our limited resources can then be focused upon the most dangerous actors and cases. 

Similarly, in terms of pushback on the ISIS narrative and the variety of actors that must engage in that endeavor, nongovernmental entities will be the most authentic and effective messengers for contesting ISIS content and reaching its targeted demographic. The conductor of the overall effort would act merely to empower these actors and amplify their voices, by supporting the grassroots without tainting their independence or credibility. The exercise would require officials to walk a fine line, by working at arm’s length to create space for counter-messages, without actually owning the effort or its sources. 

While the maxim “more is better” applies to NGO participation in this counter-ISIS space, the conductor will have to marshal all of these forces and keep them pulling in the same general direction. Lashing up the U.S. interagency effort alone is a challenge; but tying it together with the private sector and individual citizen action, as well as overseas partners, is exponentially greater. But this is not to abandon all realistic hope for success. A virtual dashboard, capturing in a visual the gamut of operations underway, could take us a long way towards coordination, in much the same way that a complex military campaign may be visualized, evaluated, and adjusted as needed. In addition, a virtual dashboard of ISIS’s online activity, that could be updated and shared with the public (since most of this is open source information), would be a useful indicator or progress, or lack thereof. 

U.S. Cyber Command should be allowed to use the full scope of its authorities and capabilities to deny ISIS access to the virtual world.

Our international counterparts are invaluable, of course, bringing deep regional expertise and experience (such as France in the Sahel) plus related information and analysis that bear upon the threat environment not only for their own homelands, but our own. Such insights will generate maximum actionable value, however, only insofar as they are shared with the relevant parties — be they other global partners or the United States itself — in timely fashion. Through proactive leadership and outreach to key international partners, the U.S. conductor could reinvigorate and supplement existing channels for government to government communication and coordination, from the working level to the highest echelons. There is already practical coordination with entities like the U.K.’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, for example.

A solid and achievable first step would be a kinetic blitzkrieg directed against selected pillars and paragons of ISIS’s cyber strategy and cyber operations. The offensive would encompass infrastructure and individuals, and would focus upon high-value targets that are no longer productive from the standpoint of (U.S. or allied) intelligence collection. Where ISIS’s cyber infrastructure is too deeply embedded in civilian areas for kinetic targeting, U.S. Cyber Command should be allowed to use the full scope of its authorities and capabilities to deny ISIS access to the virtual world. 

A playbook for action is within reach. We just need the political will to follow it through. 

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