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The www.WarOnTerror?

posted Jul 12, 2016, 4:15 PM by Michael Lenart   [ updated Sep 8, 2016, 2:40 PM ]
By Matt Lembright

The war on terror (which now includes ISIS) has always been a war against a concept – a war of ideas. The war is against not a country, but an amorphous, worldwide organization of hate with no physical headquarters. Instead, one might argue its headquarters is Twitter and the internet –its rallying points, its coordination bases, and its sources of morale.  Its goal in employing such instruments? To exhibit its “success” and spread its influence through showcasing the franchise terrorism exhibited in Paris, San Bernadino, and Orlando. The intent of such terrorism is, of course, to incite terror and panic and to encourage the affected public to question the effectiveness of their government to protect them – and it’s working.


Much of what the American public has been informed on, however, is the shooting war overseas. Until recently, the American media and the Obama administration have been focusing on the ground successes of coalition forces in depleting ISIS through airstrikes that assist allied Peshmerga, Shia, and other forces in Iraq and Syria. Such strikes have arguably put ISIS on its heels, cutting off resources, slowing advances, and forcing a reprioritization of its lines of effort. But, if ISIL’s true backbone of global reach lies not on the ground, but in cyberspace, then its operations there are its main effort, and the physical strikes against ISIS are what the military refers to as shaping operations: military operations that support the main effort.

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Fortunately, our understanding and therefore our efforts and priorities are evolving. In the article “Obama administration: ISIS is losing ground on Twitter," Global Engagement Center director Michael Lumpkin states,  “We're denying ISIL the ability to operate uncontested online, and we're seeing their social media presence decline.” [1] The US military and coalition members have long been attacking ISIS in cyberspace. Unfortunately, this story has garnered fewer headlines than reports on airstrikes, likely because airstrikes and dynamic raids have more media value because the risks of such operations are much higher (see heroes Charlie Keating IV, MSG Joshua L. Wheeler, and SSgt Louis F. Cardin), and because the measures of success are much easier to calculate.


Thankfully the narrative of cyberwar against ISIS is gaining momentum. To create an impact, however, the messaging must be as relentless as that of ISIS. The successes of taking down Twitter accounts and ruining webpages, as well as the contributions of volunteers, must be highlighted to the media as part of the US’s strategic offensive cyber campaign. 

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An additional, and ironically less public, effort against ISIS is the positive messaging response. To date, the coalition and the US’s messaging campaign against ISIS has been unclear. The US State Department’s attempt was this video (warning: graphic content). Their intent was seemingly to delegitimize ISIS’s grotesque brutality with satirical statements like, “[Come to ISIS] Where you can learn useful new skills for the Ummah! Blowing up mosques! . . . Travel is inexpensive because you won’t need a return ticket!” The intent is commendable. The problem? This is the same brutality that ISIS brags about through its own videos. ISIS justifies the violence through its illogical interpretation of Islam. If the brutality is what draws ISIS supporters and is already legitimized through ISIS rhetoric, the US State Department and others should instead consider attacking this rhetoric and the supposed infallibility of ISIS leaders’ philosophy in cyberspace.


Such a mentality can be found amongst the coalition in Louis Doré’s article. [2] In it, he describes Australian politicians’ desire to start referring to ISIS, IS, ISIL or other names, simply as Daesh- a name the group hates- rather than the group’s self-appointed ISIS or Islamic State. This attacks the group’s image of legitimacy as a State and causes followers to question its righteousness. Such articles and messaging is the tack that will prove successful against Daesh. In the same manner that the group has relentlessly dispersed its horror through social media and the internet, so too must coalition forces use the same pipelines to persistently and unapologetically sling mud at the false rhetoric and illogic Daesh uses as the foundation for its grotesque advertisements.


About the Author

Matt Lembright is a security engineer with IronNet Cybersecurity. He previously commanded a company in the 780th Military Intelligence Brigade, helping create the Cyber Mission Forces. He also served as a Cyber OPFOR (opposing force) Team Leader, and is the J2 Intelligence Officer for the Military Cyber Professionals Association.

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