Islamic State’s cyber army still ‘largely intact’ despite America’s efforts

US Cyber CommandThe global reach of the Islamic State through the use of the internet remains “largely intact” despite relentless efforts by some of America’s most advanced cyber warfare experts to neutralize the group’s online presence. It is now over a year since the United States Department of Defense announced that it had launched a cyber war against the Islamic State —the militant Sunni Muslim group that today controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

At that time, the Pentagon’s Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), put in motion plans that included the deployment of computer viruses, denial-of-service attacks and other cyber weapons against computers, internet servers and cell phone networks belonging to the Islamic State. As intelNews wrote at the time, the idea behind the plan was that an all-out online war against the Sunni militant group would hurt its public image and prevent it from launching armed attacks against targets abroad. Additionally, the Pentagon aimed to disrupt the Islamic State’s ability to recruit new members online, to spread its propaganda and to coordinate operations through the use of encrypted communications.

However, according to The New York Times, American military commanders are disappointed with the Cyber Command’s efforts. The Pentagon is quickly discovering, says the paper, that its cyber warfare methods, which were designed for fixed targets in countries like North Korea and Iran, are ineffective against the mobile and polymorphic cyber army of the Islamic State. In many instances, US Pentagon hackers wipe out online information found on Islamic State servers, only to see it reappear elsewhere online within hours. In other cases, US Cyber Command experts uncover Islamic State information stored on the cloud, but are unable to access it because it is strongly encrypted.

According to The Times, the lack of progress in the cyber war against the Islamic State was one of the reasons why the administration of President Barack Obama sought to replace Admiral Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, who also led the US Cyber Command —and continues to do so under the Donald Trump administration.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 20 June 2017 | Permalink

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Opinion: Trump’s silence over Tehran attacks exposes US policy conundrums

IranThe security map of the Middle East changed within a few hours on Wednesday, when the Islamic State managed to strike Iran for the first time. Six assailants —five men and a woman— stormed the Islamic Consultative Assembly, which serves as the parliament of Iran, and the mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. By the time they killed themselves, or were killed by security forces, the six had murdered 12 people and injured over 60. The Islamic State, which carried out the attack, had warned for several months that it would launch a direct assault at the heart of the world’s largest Shiite state. It tried to do so before, several times, and failed. But Wednesday’s attack was the first time it managed to do so successfully.

It is certainly ironic that Iran, one of the world’s most prolific sponsors of terrorism, boasts of being one of the most terrorism-free countries in the Middle East. Indeed, Wednesday’s bloody strike was the largest terrorist attack in Tehran’s history after the early years of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It is a remarkable record that many of Iran’s neighbors, such as Iraq or Syria, can only dream of. Moreover, Iran’s claim that its regional rival Saudi Arabia is responsible for Wednesday’s attack is both outlandish and absurd. It is true that militant Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s state religion, is at the root of the Islamic State’s doctrine. But the fanatics of the Islamic State direct as much ire against Saudi Arabia as they do against Iran. They accuse the former of being apostates —Muslim traitors who side with infidels— and the latter of being heretics that must be annihilated. Read more of this post

Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi abandons Mosul, say intelligence sources

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiThe leader of the Islamic State has abandoned the city of Mosul and is hiding in the desert zone of western Iraq, according to intelligence sources. Meanwhile Mosul, once the most populous city under the Islamic State’s control, is now reportedly being defended by a diminishing cadre of fewer than 3,000 Sunni militants, who are facing a 110,000-strong invading army.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the center of worldwide attention in July of 2014, when Islamic State troops swept rapidly through western Iraq and captured the region’s largest city, Mosul, in a spectacular coordinated attack. Soon after Mosul was captured by the Islamic State, al-Baghdadi led Friday prayers at Mosul’s Great Mosque and proclaimed himself caliph —emperor of the world’s Muslims. In the following months, the Islamic State reached the height of its power, commanding large expanses of land that stretched from the northern regions of Syria to the outskirts of Iraq’s capital Baghdad. Soon after al-Baghdadi’s public appearance in Mosul, the United States government set up a joint task force aimed at killing or capturing him. The group, which is still operational today, includes representatives from the Armed Forces, the National Security Council, and the Intelligence Community. Al-Baghdadi is believed to have stayed in Mosul, but has proven difficult to trace. He almost never uses electronic communications and is constantly on the move, sleeping at different locations every night.

Last October, US-backed Iraqi government troops, Shiite militias and Kurdish forces launched a large-scale military operation to recapture Mosul and drive out the Islamic State from the region. The assailants, whose combined forces are said to exceed 110,000 troops, reclaimed much of eastern Mosul earlier this year, and are preparing to launch a large-scale military advance on the western half of the city. While the operation to complete the recapture of Mosul is underway, American and Iraqi intelligence sources report that al-Baghdadi has not been public heard from since early November of last year. This leads many analysts to believe that the Islamic State leader has left the city and is now hiding in the vast and inhospitable desert that stretches along the Iraqi-Syrian border. Moreover, intelligence analysts claim that the Islamic State’s online activity has fallen sharply, to about half of what it was during the group’s peak in late 2014. This leads to the conclusion that the Islamic State is now increasingly focusing on essential functions aimed simply at the survival of the regime. The group has reportedly lost at least 3,000 fighters in Mosul, but an estimated 2,400 armed men have vouched to defend the city to the very end.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 March 2017 | Permalink

Islamic State faces imminent financial collapse, claims new study

ISIS meetingThe Islamic State is facing imminent financial collapse, according to a new study conducted by a London-based research group in association with one of the world’s leading international accounting firms. The recently launched report is entitled Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes. The analysis that forms the basis of the report was conducted by scholars at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, a research center that operates out of the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London. The report’s authors were joined by financial analysts at Ernst & Young, a British-based company that is often referred to as one of the world’s ‘big four’ accounting firms.

The report challenges the widely accepted claim that the Islamic State is the wealthiest terrorist organization in history. Its authors argue that the organization’s wealth is connected to its function as “a quasi-state”, with a geographical territory under its control and a subject population that lives in it. Territorial control, say the report’s authors, allows the Islamic State to amass significant revenue from sources like direct and indirect taxation, extraction of natural resources, and confiscation of property from citizens, among others. Even though much of the Islamic State’s financial activity is hidden, the study uses open sources to make the claim that the group’s income in 2014 was close to $2 billion. Last year, however, the overall income amassed from all sources dropped to less than $900 million, an estimated reduction of 45 percent, say the researchers.

The reason for the drop is that the financial revenue model of the Islamic State is directly linked to its territorial control. In comparison to the peak of its power in the spring of 2014, the Islamic State has today lost control of over 60 percent of its territory in Iraq and nearly a third of its territory in neighboring Syria. As coalition forces are beginning to retake Mosul, the Islamic State is facing the potential loss of the caliphate’s commercial capital. These developments will continue to seriously erode the group’s tax base and severely limit its revenue streams. There are no signs, say the researchers, that the Islamic State has been able to devise new forms of revenue streams that are not connected to direct territorial control. However, the authors of the study warn that a potential financial collapse of the Islamic State will not prevent the organization from carrying out terrorist activities in the Middle East and beyond.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 March 2017 | Permalink

Spy agencies deploy extra staff to analyze ‘treasure trove’ of ISIS computer data

Iraqi forces in MosulWestern military and intelligence agencies are deploying extra analysts to comb through unprecedented amounts of digital data collected from Iraqi regions that have recently been recaptured from the Islamic State. The information is contained in thousands of laptops, hard drives, flash drives and cell phones left behind by retreating Islamic State forces in and around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

In an article published this week, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defense, Sir Michael Fallon, said he had authorized a significant increase in numbers of military intelligence analysts deployed to the Middle East, in response to “a trove of data” captured from the Islamic State. He added that the amount of digital data was expected to increase even further “when Mosul falls”. The British intelligence analysts will join hundreds of American specialists —including analysts, linguists and computer technicians— who are stationed in neighboring Jordan and have for over a year been analyzing digital and printed data captured from the Islamic State. Much of that information is eventually disseminated to allied intelligence agencies.

The largest collection of digital data and documents captured from the Islamic State dates from last summer, when Kurdish Peshmerga forces seized nearly 1,000 electronic devices belonging to the militant group. The material was found in and around the city of Manbij, near Aleppo in northwestern Syria. By late August, the Kurds had collected 20 terabytes of computer data and more than 120,000 documents stored on 1,200 devices that once belonged to ISIS officials or operatives. According to Western officials, the data led to intelligence operations against the Islamic State in 15 countries in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. In November of this year, Iraqi forces operating south of Mosul captured the digital archives of the Islamic State’s Agricultural and Animal Resources Authority. In addition to an extensive notary archive, the collection included information on the Islamic State’s commercial transactions with entities in neighboring countries, and was described by Iraqi government sources as “a real treasure”.

According to the British government, digital data and printed documents currently being gathered from Islamic State strongholds in and around Mosul are expected to provide critical intelligence on the group’s structure and chain of command. They are also likely to give insights on the existence of Islamic State cells abroad, and will most likely help international prosecutors build legal cases against Islamic State commanders in the near future.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 December 2016 | Permalink

Joint British-American operation has decimated Islamic State’s cyber force

Computer hackingCoordinated efforts by Anglo-American military and intelligence agencies have resulted in the killing or capturing of nearly every senior commander of the Islamic State’s online force. The close-knit group of Islamic State hackers and online propagandists, which are informally known as “the Legion”, is responsible for hacking and online recruitment incidents that led to several lone-wolf attacks in the West. In one incident in March of 2015, the Legion claimed responsibility for the unauthorized release of personal details of over 1,300 American government employees, with orders to Islamic State volunteers to kill them. In other instances, Legion operatives reached out to impressionable young men and women in Western Europe and the United States and convinced them to move to Syria or conduct attacks at home.

According to The New York Times, which published an article last week about the current state of the Legion, in the early days of its emergence the group was viewed as a law enforcement problem. However, there were several successful and unsuccessful attacks by lone-wolf actors in the United States during the summer of 2015. According to The Times, the Federal Bureau of Investigation became overwhelmed and “was struggling to keep pace with the threat” posed by the Islamic State on the domestic front. It therefore pressed the US Department of Defense to help tackle the problem at its source. The DoD then teamed up with the British government, which was monitoring the Legion due to many of its members being British-born subjects. The two governments embarked on a “secretive campaign”, which has led to the capture of nearly 100 individuals associated with the Legion in less than two years. Another 12 members of the group, who had senior positions, have been killed in targeted drone strikes since the summer of 2015, says The Times.

The joint Anglo-American operation is allegedly responsible for the recent drop in terrorist activity instigated by the Islamic State in the West. It appears, says the paper, that the Islamic State is failing to replace the captured or killed members of the Legion with equally skilled operatives, which may point to the desperate state of the organization. But the Islamic State continues to operate a relatively sophisticated media arm, according to US government officials, and its media reach should not be underestimated, even as it is losing ground in Syria and Iraq.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2016 | Permalink

Flow of foreign fighters to ISIS drops to near zero, intel assessments show

ISIS meetingThe transfer of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State and other Sunni militant groups has been all but eliminated in countries across the world, according to intelligence assessments. In previous years, it has been estimated that nearly as many as 2,000 foreign recruits, both men and women, crossed into Syria each month, mainly from Turkey, with the intention of joining armed Sunni groups. By the end of 2015, it was believed that over 30,000 foreign nationals from close to 90 countries had entered Syria and Iraq to fight for one of the Sunni-inspired opposition groups taking part in the Syrian civil war. Most of these foreign recruits joined the Islamic State, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

But current intelligence assessments produced by analysts in the US Intelligence Community suggest that the total inflow of foreign recruits has trickled down to a total of just 50 since the beginning of 2016. Many European countries, notably Belgium and Britain, have not seen any of their nationals leaving for Syria or Iraq this year, while fewer than 10 Americans have done so since January. According to The Washington Post, which last week published a report on the subject, this unprecedented trend is largely attributable to the shrinking territory —and presumably operational strength— of the Islamic State. Some experts note that, like al-Qaeda before it, the Islamic State is now seen as “failing entity” by Sunnis, prompting many aspiring jihadists to not wish to be associated with the group. It has also becoming more difficult for individuals to enter Syria, as Western governments and Turkey have grown progressively vigilant of young men and women seeking to travel to regional warzones. The Islamic State has also lost its control over regions that are adjacent to Turkey’s borders, which discourages Turkish and Syrian smugglers from attempting to transfer people across the notoriously porous border.

But even though the decline is sustainable, and marks “an important milestone” in multinational endeavors to combat the growth of the Islamic State, The Washington Post notes that it also raises critical questions about the future of Western security. Specifically, the paper wonders whether the terrorism threat from the Islamic State is easing, or if it is “morphing into a more dangerous new phase”, in which potential recruits are instructed to attack Western targets and former recruits disperse into conflict-prone areas across the world to spread the jihad there.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 September 2016 | Permalink