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The Pentagon is set to step up its cyber warfare efforts against ISIS, and is arguing that disabling the group’s computers, mobile phones, and servers could help disrupt terrorist attacks and recruitment efforts.
US military hackers, from the Cyber Command at Fort Meade, Maryland, have developed a range of malware tools to attack ISIS’ propaganda and recruitment capabilities, said a US official on condition of anonymity.
Other intelligence agencies, notably the FBI, are resisting the move. They fear that taking drastic measures against ISIS’ online activity would harm intelligence collection, obscuring the locations and intentions of ISIS militants and leaders.
Further, such tools could harm humanitarian aid, opposition groups, and US-backed rebels in Iraq and Syria. There is also the likely risk of the malware spreading beyond the borders of ISIS’ stronghold.
The White House wants “to see options” for countering ISIS online, said a US official. “That doesn’t mean they are all in play. It just means they want to look at what ways we can pressure” ISIS.
For the moment, White House officials prefer targeted attacks against particular targets, when intelligence gathering can point to specific phones, computer, or digital services used by ISIS.
“If you do see something that is in service of an active operation, you may want to take some action to disrupt that operation,” said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes in an interview.
Cyber Command has been targeting ISIS networks and social media accounts so far, but Pentagon officials want more to be done. They argue that viruses, denial of service attacks, and other cyber attacks, could and should incapacitate ISIS’ communications.
Cyber security experts, however, are weary of such drastic action. They argue that such moves could force ISIS to use more secure and harder to detect methods of communication.
“Sitting there trying to play whack-a-mole to knock these communications platforms off can be so complicated and so resource intensive and only marginally effective,” said John D. Cohen, a former senior Homeland Security counterterrorism official who teaches at Rutgers University.