By Pramod Raj Sedhain
The dramatic rise of Islamic State ultra-extremist group since June 2014 in Iraq and Syria has not only posed threat on physical terrorism threat but has also created critical threat on cyber arena. IS does not use routine terrorist tactics and has proved that it uses cyber space for its terrorist activities tools for global reach. Shortly after self-declaration of ‘Caliphate’ in June 2014, IS formed an online hacker wing called ‘Cyber Caliphate’ currently renamed as ‘United Cyber Caliphate’. Since then, virtual ‘Caliphate’ has been a very effective arm for their overall terrorist operations. Strategic utilization of cyber and social media platforms has revolutionized the IS’ global terrorism in a short span of time.
Initially, Islamic State’s ability in cyberspace, in fact, was completely underestimated or ignored by the West. IS’s modernized its terrorism phenomenon through cyber space. IS tactfully utilized the technology and social media tools for formidable inspirational terrorist organization. Cyber-jihad has become the most strategic valuable tool for IS global terrorist operations. IS successfully launched new battle through cyber space that virtually reached everywhere in the world in very short period of time. Cyber propaganda on information era has changed the balance of power within no time. The skillfully growing use of cyber space has been reshaping the virtual imagination into real danger.
IS has used extensive cyber recruitment strategy, super fast communication skills, glossy propaganda, widely disseminating of propaganda advertising thus paving the way to horrific rise of IS in cyberspace. During a very short period of time, IS has been able to successfully gain its propaganda strength in real terms. They have been able to manipulate the minds of youth across the globe. They have been able to develop their own version of encryption communication software as well as data manipulation. They succeeded to induce thousands of foreign fighters, thousands of social media followers to radicalization and sympathizer attacks.
Cyber Caliphate’s has claimed credit for powerful cyber attacks and hacking such as hacking on U.S. army’s central command Twitter feed, France’s TV5Monde, British BBC, UAE’s Al-Ittihad daily, MBC Arabic TV Twitter account, educational organizations, transportation systems, NGO’s, commercial among other various websites and social media accounts. Widespread exploitation of cyber vulnerabilities, distributing private data of security personnel, bank accounts, credit card accounts and individual details. But these attacks actually proved false-flag operations, outsourcing, to manipulations of data. IS offensive on cyber space attracted global attention, however, the international community failed to take meaningful counter action against them.
Overwhelmingly young people accessed social media and growing reliance on cyberspace throughout the world has helped to transforming the traditional threat which IS succeeded to manipulate with new techniques. No terrorist group has ever used modern cyber tools for global scale terrorism campaign. Sophisticated and strategic use of cyber technologies was led by British hacker Junaid Hussain with collaboration with other like-minded cyber terrorists and some of the loosely associated global hacker networks.
IS lessons have been learnt from 2011 Arab Spring which effectively utilized the social media platforms to spreading the ideas and organizing revolutions for repressive regime change. Popular uprising in the Arab world changed the violence to extremism and terrorism eventually leading into civil war, long term political upheaval paving the way towards opening security vacuum in the region. IS was limited to independent cyber capabilities and outsourcing ability in its initial phase. They focused on sympathetic attacks, exploiting on soft target, penetrating on cyber vulnerabilities. Most of the IS hacking success were related to exploiting vulnerable website rather than skilled hacked.
Civil war in various nations in the Arab World created opportunity for IS not only in the ground, including securing weapons, funding, managing fighters but also feeding technological skills. IS launched ground war and cyber war simultaneously with the extensive use of social media. Arab Spring in 2011 significantly shifted the traditional revolution landscape into online-based medium against oppressive regimes in Middle East.
Despite all IS activities on cyber surveillance radar, Western security forces hesitated to initiate rapid cyber countermeasures against IS online presence over certain legal and liberal principles. Even before IS online march, U.S. social media companies had no effective restrictions of extremist content measures structures. Such very lengthy content and social media accounts removing policy created the opportunity for IS online extremism. Delayed action proved to be very serious mistake which infiltrated into the minds of western youth that eventually led the expansion of terrorist capabilities and series of attacks against Western countries.
The killing of IS’ cyber master mind Junaid Hussain known as Abu Hussain al-Britani by drone strike on August 2015 in Raqqa and second most prominent hacker Siful Haque Sujan AKA Abu Khalid al-Bengali (from Bangladesh) in December 2015 in Raqqa by US forces was a significant blow to IS cyber wing. U.S. targeted killings of IS second-in-command and spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani on August 2016 in Aleppo was another devastating consequence for IS propaganda operation. Killing of such experienced and influential propagandist and cyber terrorists has significantly decreased the IS propaganda campaign and cyber ability.
The U.S. counterterrorism officials believed foreign false-flag operators or hackers could be aiding the IS for sensitive military and government employee data. Eventually cyber operation traced the real source of hacking on sensitive documents and sent to IS from Malaysia. It was immediately verified including the accurate nexus, location and evidence of source Yong Kosovo citizen Ardit Ferizi who was arrested in Malaysia on September, 2015. Ferizi entered Malaysia in August 2014 to study computer science in Kuala Lumpur. The in-depth isolated investigations by U.S. counterterrorism specialist proved his involvement and recently court convicted him to 20 years in prison in U.S.
Despite losing the cyber battle, IS cyber has united by rebranding its name on March 2016 after 4 Pro- IS Cyber units known as ‘Cyber Caliphate Army’, ‘Sons Caliphate Army’, ‘Ghost Caliphate Section’ & ‘Kalachnikv E-security team’ and merged with new name ‘United Cyber Caliphate’ (UCC). After rebranding its name, UCC launched series of high profile propaganda to announce big hacking plans including plans to hack tech giant Google. But eventually doomed failed.
U.S. cyber response has changed the equation in cyber space since 2016. After series of covert act against IS cyber and propaganda capabilities, U.S. Cyber Command officially declared cyber-war on the Islamic State on April 2016. IS faced the most devastating consequences on cyberspace after U.S. launched aggressive all-out efforts to destroy IS digital capabilities. New approach including swift removal of IS linked social media accounts and quick crackdown on extremists’ contents in online has been a big success in recent days. What we can judge is that IS cyber front will completely collapse in the very near future.
Now-a-days IS has been mostly using open source methods without advanced computer knowledge. Cyber campaign has been IS terror group’s key strategy but does not yet have an independent operational ability. Delay of all-out efforts against IS in digital front will pave the way for IS’s long-term presence in cyberspace. But now, U.S. has been able to effectively curb IS influence of self-styled Caliphate on online.
IS’s entire cyber cell now depends on open source privacy manuals to hide U.S. intense electronic surveillance on suspects. U.S. has killed prominent hackers by precision drone strikes. IS has no existing capabilities to offensive attacks in cyberspace but group’s organized propaganda activities on online has continued. IS has no ability on sophisticated cyber-attack against critical infrastructures but still poses powerful propaganda threat.
How powerful is Islamic State’s ‘United Cyber Caliphate’?
By Pramod Raj Sedhain