Until recently, cyber warfare was the ultimate state secret. U.S. officials were hesitant even to admit that the military was thinking about developing offensive weapons. Now, we are learning that the Pentagon has not only delivered a range of options to President Barack Obama but has begun to direct their use against ISIS operations in Iraq, Syria, and around the world.
Why administration officials are revealing some of their most closely guarded secrets remains something of a mystery. But the story they tell is that of a new form of combat, one that mirrors the old but is unbounded by national borders and as much about deception as any actual destruction. The ambiguity of what cyber warfare actually looks like leads to a lot of insinuation and what can sound a little like braggadocio.
“We are dropping cyberbombs,” Robert O. Work, deputy secretary of defense, told The New York Times. “We have never done that before.”
But as for what a “cyber bomb” actually is or does, we learn nothing more. The focuses of administration efforts to open a cyber campaign against ISIS appear to be finances and public relations, two domains that translate pretty neatly into traditional modes of warfare. We have videos of drones blowing up ISIS’s stores of cash, and it’s not hard to imagine cyber attacks that target and disrupt digital money transfers.
“Were trying to both physically and virtually isolate ISIL, limit their ability to conduct command and control, limit their ability to communicate with each other, limit their ability to conduct operations locally and tactically,” General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The New York Times.
The new form of battle has necessitated the creation of a new type of military unit, “national mission teams,” that are like special forces squads in that they take on specific assignments against a target like ISIS. Until now, cyber warfare has focused on major state actors like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, so the shift to more mobile units is a first.
The new setup allows these teams to focus on assignments like disrupting the recruitment of ISIS militants online. The military has been dropping “implants” that masquerade as ISIS fighters either recruiting or directing operations in the hope that the charade allows them to direct the group into the grasp of coalition forces. These efforts may also deter applicants and could even disrupt the so-called propaganda war ISIS has waged to lure new members.
It’s also clear that the very decision to go public with information about the U.S. cyber war constitutes a tactic in itself. The military’s obtuseness about the scale and sophistication of its attacks on ISIS cyber operations appear designed to force the terrorist group to reconsider all of its current efforts. Fear of U.S. attack could prove just as successful at forcing ISIS to withdraw from the digital domain as actual attacks would. Imagine trying to communicate when you believe all of your communications are bugged by the enemy.
Combined with recent military victories against ISIS, the new cyber campaign may be poised to further limit the group’s spread, especially overseas, where its reach is principally digital rather than with troops on the ground. It’s not a surprising turn for the war on ISIS, but its success or failure may prove formative for an entirely new theory of warfare that has developed around the new weapons.
“We are not going to kill our way out of this conflict,” Lisa O. Monaco, a deputy national security adviser and Obama’s top adviser for counterterrorism told The New York Times. “And we are not going to delete our way out of it, either.”