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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Mismanagement plagues US online program against ISIS, say sources

CENTCOM military computersWhistleblowers say mismanagement, amateurism and cronyism are plaguing a multimillion-dollar American psychological operation aimed at countering online propaganda by the Islamic State. The program, known as WebOps, was established by the United States Department of Defense during the administration of US President Barack Obama. Its stated goal is to counter efforts by the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria —ISIS) to spread propaganda and recruit followers using online social media. Since its creation, it has been administered by the US Central Command’s Information Operations Division. But its implementation has been contracted to Colsa Corporation, a private company based in the US state of Alabama. The company specializes in providing services for US government agencies, some of which include the use of specialized software that utilizes information found on social media.

According to the Associated Press news agency, WebOps staff consists of civilian analysts who speak Arabic. Every day, using fabricated online profiles, they browse social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter looking for pro-ISIS activity to counter. But the news agency said on Tuesday that it spoke to several people with knowledge of the program, who claim that it is plagued by incompetence, mismanagement and cronyism. They allege that analysts involved in WebOps have limited experience in counter-propaganda, incomplete understanding of Islam, and little more than a basic command of Arabic. Consequently, they have been known to make crucial errors when posting messages online. The latter end up amusing their readers instead of countering ISIS propaganda. In one case, a WebOps analyst confused the Arabic word for “authority” (as in Palestinian Authority) with the similarly sounding word “salad”, thus ending up with “Palestinian salad” instead of “Palestinian Authority”. Rather than managing to counter ISIS propaganda, the message was ridiculed on social media.

The report also cited “four current or former workers” who claimed that they personally witnessed “data being manipulated” to make the WebOps program seem more successful than it has been. They also claim that the program’s administrators have purposely resisted efforts by the Department of Defense to exercise independent oversight of the program’s performance. The Associated Press said it contacted US Central Command, the Pentagon outfit that is responsible for WebOps, on January 10. But it said that no response has been received from anyone there.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 February 2017 | 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

US files espionage charges against military contractors with Turkish ties

PentagonIn a development that is expected to contribute to the downward spiral in Turkish-American relations, the United States government has reportedly filed espionage charges against three Department of Defense contractors with Turkish background. The three are believed to have been charged with transferring US military secrets abroad and are currently in prison.

A statement published by the US Pentagon said that the group consists of two men and a woman, all of whom are of Turkish background. Two of them are naturalized American citizens. They are listed as owners of a company that conducts research in military technology and has contracted for many years with the US Pentagon. All contracts were allegedly won following competitive bids and can only be awarded to bidders who are in possession of US citizenship and top security clearances. According to Turkey’s pro-government English-language newspaper, Daily Sabah, the three contractors have helped develop and manufacture parts for missile-launching systems used on American warplanes. They have also worked on several generations of grenade launchers used by the US military.

But on Sunday, the three contractors were arrested in simultaneous raids and charged with “funneling military secrets out of the country”, according to Sabah. The paper said the US government decided to arrest the three once it became known that some hardware parts related to the Pentagon bids handled by their company were being illegally manufactured in Turkey. There is no information in the Pentagon’s press release on whether the top-secret military components were also shared with the Turkish government. Relations between Washington and Ankara, two North Atlantic Treaty Organization member-states, have suffered since the failed July 15 military coup in Turkey. Many in the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blame Washington for the coup and for allegedly shielding the man behind it, the Islamic cleric Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the US state of Pennsylvania.

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

US Pentagon hires private intelligence contractor for Syria operations

PentagonThe United States Department of Defense has released details of an agreement with a private intelligence contractor, which experts believe involves the provision of services to American Special Forces working clandestinely inside Syria. The announcement, made on the Pentagon’s website, is believed to be the first public admission of the use of a private intelligence contractor by the US government in Syria. In the brief press release, the DoD identifies the contractor as Six3 Intelligence Solutions, a McLean, Virginia-headquartered company that specializes in intelligence, biometrics and security.

Six3 Intelligence Solutions is a subsidiary of CACI International Inc., one of the largest defense, security and intelligence contractors in the US. According to The Daily Beast, CACI purchased Six3 Intelligence Solutions in 2013 for $820 million, in what a CACI media statement said was “the biggest deal” in the company’s 50-year history. Public records indicate that Six3 Intelligence Solutions is already fulfilling a $30 million contract with the Pentagon, involving the provision of nondescript “intelligence services” to American troops stationed in Afghanistan. The latest contract, worth $9.5 million, was announced on July 27. It is a no-bid contract, otherwise known as a ‘sole source contract’, which means that the government believes that only one company can provide the services required. Thus, the process by which a no-bid contract is awarded is non-competitive.

The Pentagon’s July 27 announcement states that, under the contract, work by Six3 Intelligence Solutions personnel “will be performed in Germany, Italy, and Syria”. There is no mention of the precise nature of the work, though it is generally assumed that it will support the operations of US Special Forces troops that are currently stationed in Syria. American troops have been active in Syria for at least a year. Nearly 300 US Special Forces members are believed to be presently operational in the war-torn country, working with officers of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Daily Beast said it contacted CACI and the DoD about the recently announced contract, but received no responses.

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

US Pentagon is secretly giving intelligence to Syria, claims journalist

PentagonThe United States Department of Defense has been secretly sharing intelligence with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad without authorization by the White House, according to an American journalist. Officially, the US government is opposed to the Assad regime in Damascus and has repeatedly stated that peace in Syria can only be achieved if the Assad family leaves power. But in a report published yesterday in The London Review of Books, the veteran American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claims that America’s military leadership has been secretly aiding the Assad family’s efforts to defeat Islamist groups in Syria.

Citing “a former senior adviser to the Joint Chiefs” of Staff (JCS), which comprises of the senior leadership of the Pentagon, Hersh says that the Pentagon is sharing intelligence with Damascus through “third nations”. These include Israel, Germany and even Russia, claims Hersh. The secret agreement is allegedly aimed at defeating the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria. It is important to note that Hersh claims that the White House, including US President Barack Obama, has not authorized the intelligence sharing and is not aware of the secret arrangement. However, the former JSC senior adviser said that was not surprising and that the Executive did not have to authorize every tactical decision made by the leadership of the Pentagon.

However, Hersh points out that if President Obama is indeed being kept in the dark about the Pentagon’s intelligence relationship with Damascus, the secret arrangement would amount to deliberate undermining of the Executive by the US military’s policies. It would also indicate a growing gap between the White House and the Pentagon in regards to America’s position toward the Syrian Civil War. Neither the Pentagon nor the White House responded to media inquiries about Hersh’s report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 December 2015 | Permalink

US considers launching all-out cyber war against Islamic State

US Cyber CommandFollowing a request from the White House, the United States Department of Defense is putting together options to launch offensive cyber operations of an unprecedented scale against the Islamic State. The White House reportedly issued the request soon after the December 2 shooting in San Bernardino, California, in response to reports that the two shooters were radicalized through exposure to online propaganda by the Islamic State. According to American government officials, US President Barack Obama directed the Pentagon to put together a report outlining options for “a stepped up cyber offensive” against online activities by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The report is allegedly being prepared by the US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), the Pentagon office responsible for conducting what the US military calls “full spectrum military cyberspace operations”. Offensive cyber security planners at USCYBERCOM, which is located at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, are said to have prepared plans that include proposals to launch numerous computer viruses, denial-of-service attacks and other cyber weapons against computers, internet servers and cell phone networks belonging to the Islamic State. The idea behind the plan is that an all-out online war against the Sunni militant group would hurt its image and prevent it from launching armed attacks against civilian targets abroad.

However, Canadian newspaper The Toronto Star reports that a number of other US agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have voiced objections to the USCYBERCOM plan, arguing that an all-out cyber war against the Islamic State could backfire. Specifically, some US intelligence officials argue that sabotaging online communications nodes, as well as cell phone networks, would make it harder to spy on the Islamic State. Additionally, such a move would hinder the work of aid groups, opposition forces, and even Western-backed rebel forces in the Levant, who rely on the same Internet and cellular networks to communicate with each other. These officials argue instead that the US should opt for surgical attacks on specific computers or cell phones used by senior Islamic State planners.

According to media reports, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is scheduled to meet with USCYBERCOM commanders this week in order to evaluate the possibilities for offensive cyber attacks against the Islamic State. He will then brief President Barack Obama on the available options.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 December 2015 | Permalink