National Security

Meet The Elite Cyber Units Fighting The Propaganda War Against ISIS

REUTERS/Rick Wilking

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter

In addition to rolling back Islamic State on the physical battlefield, there are two elite U.S. military cyber units that are actively fighting the terrorist group’s propaganda in the digital sphere.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the U.S. military combatant command responsible for Iraq and Syria, has two separate programs that engage in information warfare against ISIS. The first unit, known as the Digital Engagement Team (DET), is charged with going on the offensive on the news front. It provides information from Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resovle (CJTF-OIR) in multiple languages. The second unit, known as Web Ops, engages in what are essentially psychological operations which target foreign countries.

“In 2014, when ISIL took Mosul, they maintained a dozen official [social media] accounts that said ‘We Are ISIL,'” said an official who works with the Web Ops unit to DoD News, the Pentagon’s news service. “They also relied on several dozen ‘fanboy’ accounts which could boast upwards of 100,000 followers. So in terms of official messaging and in terms of unofficial support messaging, ISIL could quickly and easily reach hundreds of thousands of supporters and really the whole world with minimal effort.”

ISIS is heavily reliant on spreading its propaganda through the digital domain, using social media and high-production propaganda videos to speak to its followers. During its peak, the group was actively calling on Muslims across the world to join the so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Initially, the terrorist group was fairly successful. It attracted thousands of foreign fighters from across the world to its black banner.

As ISIS has lost territory in its “parent tumor” in Iraq and Syria, it has tailored its message to encourage followers to stay in their home countries and commit terrorist attacks locally. The group has seen some success employing this strategy, with the recent attacks in both San Bernardino, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., having been inspired by ISIS in one form or another.

Though ISIS has tailored its message when necessary, it has relied on its digital propaganda to communicate en masse with followers. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been the main arteries that the terrorist group uses to push its message.

Officials in both CENTCOM and other organizations have targeted ISIS social media presence in order to stop its deadly message.

The Web Ops official noted that since ISIS’s rise in 2014, three factors have “degraded” ISIS’s cyber presence. First, social media companies have actively suspended the accounts of ISIS members and sympathizers. Second, an “attrition and decrease” in the terrorist group’s morale. Finally, the efforts of units like Web Ops and DET, and even some non-governmental groups, have hampered ISIS’s ability to fight on the digital battlefield.

“A combination of those three has gradually degraded ISIL’s footprint, ISIL’s ability to quickly and easily reach the masses,” said the official.

DET is a small unit, but has an incredibly important job when it comes to countering ISIS digitally. The 11-man unit is comprised of native Arabic, Urdu, Russian, Fars, Dari and Pashto speakers. The group targets countries like Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan and central Asian countries and provides them tailor-made information from CJTF-OIR.

Officials say the goal of DET is to reach the “Iraqi on the street.” In one example, DET “amplified” the “Iraqis tweeting in Iraqi” meme on social media to take back the digital space from ISIS.

Web Ops works closely with DET, but engages what are known as military information support operations, known by the acronym MISO. The unit’s mission focuses on coordination and message consistency between CJTF-OIR, Department of State and units like DET. The 120-man unit engages in a three-step approach to counter ISIS: disrupting propaganda, pointing out the hypocrisy of ISIS members to audiences that could be radicalized and supporting ISIS adversaries on the digital space.

A common theme that Web Ops puts forward is the so-called ISIS “bait and switch” regarding defectors leaving the group.

“The main thing we see defectors complaining about is that … it was a bait and switch,” said an official to DoD News. “They were told they would be fighting the Syrian regime or ‘the crusaders,’ and instead they found themselves fighting against other Muslims — opposition groups. That’s the single most prominent complaint we hear. That’s the most commonly cited reason why they leave [ISIS], because they were lied to about what they would be doing.”

Abu Ibrahim, an ISIS defector, told CBS News in an interview that “a lot of people when they come, they have a lot of enthusiasm about what they’ve seen online or what they’ve seen on YouTube. They see it as something a lot grander than what the reality is. It’s not all military parades or it’s not all victories.”

While the Department of Defense has made progress against ISIS in the digital sphere, there is some argument to made that there is more work to be done, especially given recent ISIS-inspired attacks in the U.S. and abroad.

“We need a more formalized public-private partnership with the focus of the Manhattan Project and the funding of the Mercury and Apollo space programs to study the issue, map out capabilities, assign responsibilities, guide development and allocate resources,” wrote former CIA Director James Woolsey and Chip Register in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in June. “The critical success factor here will not be the amount of money spent, but speed, efficiency and effectiveness.”

Despite losses on the physical battlefield, and the best efforts of units like DET and Web Ops, ISIS has been able to carry out a significant amount of deadly attacks. Defense officials admit that as the group loses territory at home, itwill likely continue to encourage attacks abroad, meaning combating the group on the digital battlefield will be crucial in the near future.

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