Cyber Bombs Reshape U.S. Battle Against Terrorism

Sep 12, 2016
Originally published on September 12, 2016 6:18 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We're going to learn more now about the high-tech component in the fight against terrorist groups. They are known as cyber bombs, but they're not bombs in the traditional sense. NPR's counter-terrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston reports on how the cyber war is being waged against ISIS and how it's changing the fight against terrorism.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Imagine being able to make it difficult for an ISIS commander to talk to his fighters in the field just by placing a piece of malware on his computer network.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ASHTON CARTER: I'm talking about attacking the ability of someone sitting in Raqqah to command and control ISIL forces outside of Raqqah or to talk to Mosul or even to talk to somebody in Paris or to the United States.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Defense Secretary Ashton Carter speaking to NPR earlier this year about the cyber campaign against ISIS.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CARTER: Just like we dropped bombs, we're dropping cyber bombs.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, maybe not exactly.

GARY BROWN: I'm not sure it's the best term we could have chosen because the actions we're taking aren't really very similar to bombing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Gary Brown, a professor of cybersecurity at the Marine Corps University.

BROWN: The actions the DOD has discussed sound more like amped up intelligence functions as opposed to more traditional kinetic functions that we'd call bombing, usually.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Amped up intelligence, he says. Think of it as the military doing a spectacular hack as opposed to blowing things up. The internet allows ISIS to have a secure method of communication across the globe. It helps the group recruit and raise money. That's the bad news.

The good news is that because terrorist groups rely so heavily on the internet, it offers new avenues for the U.S. and its allies to fight them. American-intelligence officials tell NPR that the U.S. military has used a number of cyber exploits against ISIS, including malware that allows them to have back doors into ISIS's computer systems. That means, potentially, the U.S. military has the ability to stop messages from being delivered or can alter commands without ISIS knowing. So for example...

BROWN: They could certainly pick out the certain user...

TEMPLE-RASTON: ...like an ISIS battlefield commander.

BROWN: ...Maybe if it's a senior person, maybe somebody on their personal staff, and they'd be able to observe potentially their movements or how they use the internet to pass their orders.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And then the U.S. could very simply change those orders. So instead of telling a large group of fighters to stay in a city where they would be difficult target, the orders could say they should meet in an open space, and that would allow the U.S. to attack them more easily. That's hypothetically speaking of course because U.S. military officials have declined to provide exact details about their cyber campaign against the group because it's classified.

Joel Brenner was Senior Counsel at the NSA and used to advise the agency on internet security. He says there are a roster of cyber operations that could be leveled against ISIS, and it would be wrong to assume that the cyber component of the fight is new.

JOEL BRENNER: I'm just not free to talk about what might have been happening. I just think it's a mistake to assume the government's been sitting on its fanny all this time.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That raises the question why it's taken so long for Obama administration officials like Defense Secretary Carter to talk about these cyberattacks. Brenner and the Marine Corps University's Brown say hints about it now may be tactical. If you want to sow confusion and distrust among ISIS's ranks, you suggest you're in their computer networks. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.