Fear of the disastrous consequences of cyberwar among all states appeared at the end of the last century. Various media, politicians, military and economic experts in their speeches had already started to depict the horrors of an unauthorized access or breach of computer systems, which could result not only in the disabling of public power systems, gas and oil pipelines, but even of national security systems and up to nuclear disaster.
In recent years, the threat of cyber attacks has begun to acquire special significance amid increasing terrorist activities of the Islamic State and other extremist and terrorist groups affiliated with ISIS. These threats become more and more real against the background of the received data that recently ISIS has been not just actively recruiting software specialists, but also trying to get access to cyber weapons.
Unfortunately, it should be admitted that the equipment that allows one to create and distribute malicious software, is nowadays so easily available that it could be purchased online on eBay, not to mention the possibility of setting up cyber weapons on the black markets. Thus, it cannot be ruled out that soon we may witness the intensification of use of cyber weapons by ISIS against many countries or companies.
It is worthwhile noticing that ISIS has already successfully used the Internet, going online to recruit, and spread terrorist information and intimidation tactics. Thus, for example, a group calling itself the “Lizard Squad” on Twitter has announced itself as being IS-connected, when it launched a cyber attack on some of the biggest worldwide gaming companies including Sony and Microsoft.
The definitive main task of cyber attacks by ISIS is to provide a connection between different terrorist groups and to promote ISIS propaganda. After all, the “efficiency” of terrorism is largely dependent on the waves that are provoked by its actions in the public opinion. Therefore, propaganda is a key component of ISIS’ goal in establishing an Islamic Caliphate.
Numerous experts in the fight against terrorism, including FBI experts, noted the high technical competence of this group: it possesses the latest encryption techniques and knows how to use secure channels, which are protected by the latest technology. According to NBC News, ISIS even has its own “technical support service,” which is available 24/7 and assists ISIS members in fixing any technical problems. It consists of a team of experienced engineers, located on the territory of the Caliphate, and of dozens of experts around the world who are also able to join ISIS actions at any time of the day or night.
The extensive investigation of Greg Miller and Souad Mekhennet from The Washington Post (based on interviews with a number of repent ISIS militants, which are now imprisoned in Morocco) for the first time depicts a clear picture of ISIS’ Cyber-Caliphate.
According to them, the core of ISIS information department is comprised by about a hundred people who work in a well-protected building on the most modern equipment. ISIS clearly understands the importance of this service: its superiors have the titles “Emirs,” which equates them to the military leadership of the organization. Employees are well paid (sometimes seven times more than militants of the same rank), or are even provided with a house and a car. Some of them have previously worked for al-Qaeda in Iraq. There are many talented young people from different countries among them; and before joining the Islamists, these people often worked in media. ISIS tightly controls information flow: they immediately take all cameras from any new militant to prevent any unauthorized picture leakage.
ISIS’ cyber-jihadists already hacked the Twitter and Youtube accounts of the Central Command of the US Army in 2015, and made public on the web classified documents, phone numbers, email addresses, home addresses of dozens of American military officials, they also posted a video calling to join ISIS. In addition, military maps of North Korea and China have also been leaked into the network.
On April 8, 2015 the French state-funded television channel TV5 Monde was attacked by ISIS hackers, which was the most powerful cyber attack in the history of television.
Hackers connected with the terrorist group Islamic State, hacked the e-mail inboxes of a few members of the cabinet of David Cameron, as The Daily Telegraph reported on September 12, citing the UK Government Communications Headquarters.
Hackers, in particular, Anonymous, the Ghost Security Group and others have united to combat terrorism online. Activists have set a goal – to fight against extremism on the web. For this purpose, they monitor the activities of the militants in the digital space, looking for the information about possible threats. Thus, Ghost Security hackers state that due to their activity about 60 thousand extremists accounts were blocked on Twitter and around 130 sites were knocked out. The group also announced that they helped to prevent terrorist attacks in New York and on the island of Djerba in Tunisia.
However, according to the head of Kaspersky Lab Yevgeny Kaspersky, only various government agencies, and not hacking groups, are in a place to skillfully fight with the ISIS terrorists. In an interview to German Spiegel, Kaspersky in particular noted: “The situation should be taken under control, in fact, by public authorities and by the social networks themselves, it does not require the involvement of Anonymous.” Besides, Kaspersky considers there is a danger that Islamists may conduct a comprehensive cyber attack, using hired hackers. “I’m afraid that if the mob can hire talented hackers, the Islamist terrorists also can too,” he stressed.
The EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Günther Oettinger also said that it is necessary to get state bodies to be actively involved in the fight against cyber-terrorism and, in particular, the ISIS’ Cyber-Caliphate: “Europe must do everything to ensure the security of digital infrastructure, and to increase funding for the fight against cyber attacks.”
Recently it became known that the United States has established a Centre to combat ISIS propaganda. This Centre is a part of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, but will cooperate with other federal and local security agencies. Furthermore, officials from the Homeland Security Agency will meet with the representatives of the US Internet companies of Silicon Valley in the near future in California. The meeting will focus on the establishment and operation of the Centre.
Other countries also establish similar units to combat ISIS cyber attacks and Islamist militants propaganda.
However, as the results of the fight against the Islamic State show, it is only possible to achieve the victory over this “black plague” of the new century by combining the efforts of various countries. In this regard, it seems that there has long been a need to establish an international body under the auspices of the United Nations, which would not only coordinate and conduct military operations against ISIS militants, but would also fight the attacks of the ISIS’ Cyber-Caliphate.
Vladimir Platov, expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”