How America must fight the jihadists in the cyberspace

world-map-networkConservative Review, by Benjamin Weingarten, February 10, 2017:

As the Trump administration reorients America’s national security and foreign policy towards the global jihadist threat, it is imperative that it take the fight to the enemy in every dimension: Land, air, sea, space, economic/financial and cyber.

In the last area, President Trump is reportedly pursuing an executive order to review our nation’s cybersecurity measures.

A disturbing investigative report published by the Associated Press (AP) on the Pentagon’s “WebOps” program suggests that our offensive cyber programs are in need of review as well.

The purported purpose of the Obama administration-initiated WebOps program was to stop prospective jihadis from joining the Islamic State through online counterpropaganda.

In practice, the program looks like a boondoggle.

According to the AP’s investigation, WebOps is plagued by among other things:

  • Gross incompetence in the form of operators engaging with would-be jihadis who have limited fluency in Arabic language, relevant cultural and historical knowledge, or expertise in jihadist groups, let alone Islamic theology;
  • Inability and unwillingness to honestly measure success as operators are scored based upon whether the subjects with whom they engage subsequently reflect “militant views or a more tolerant outlook,” which is of course inherently subjective.  Scoring teams were reportedly encouraged “to indicate progress against radicalism in their scoring reports even if they were not making any”;
  • “Grade inflation” as operators are in-part judged on the number of engagements they have with potential jihadis — figures that are manipulated by blasting out automated tweets to mass numbers of individuals; and
  • Minimal oversight as the firm hired to provide the operators was also scoring their work.

The AP asserts that there is a new $500 million contract for a five-year counterpropaganda program to be run in parallel with WebOps that has drawn allegations of potential corruption with respect to favoritism/conflicts of interest in the bidding process.

Reportedly, the contractor who runs the WebOps operation may be subcontracted on this parallel project, thereby keeping WebOps running for up to five more years.

The Washington Post describes another cyberwarfare counterpropaganda effort that appears more effective on its face.

The program, interestingly run by former Navy SEAL Michael Lumpkin —  who was previously tabbed by then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to facilitate the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl —  targets Facebook ads towards those identified as potential recruits to Islamic State. Such messages are delivered in Arabic and supposedly better tailored towards the would-be jihadis.

The ads “offer a harrowing view of life inside the self-proclaimed caliphate, sometimes with photos or cartoons and often in the words of refugees and defectors who warn others to stay away.”

The program seeks to more accurately measure effectiveness than WebOps apparently:

Each day, the team monitors the responses to different variations of the ads in real time, measuring how often each is viewed and for how long. Lumpkin discovered quickly that the appeal of different messages varied from one region to another. In locales with strong tribal traditions, appeals to family and duty seem to resonate. In others, it’s the testimony of defectors, supplied mostly by partner agencies. Their disillusionment reveals “the true nature of ISIL,” including harsh conditions that the group’s propaganda videos never talk about, Lumpkin said.

Of course, as Lumpkin acknowledges, as with the WebOps program, success is difficult to measure. Islamic State recruitment rates are falling, but Lumpkin cannot prove a link between his program and the reality on the ground.

An all-of-the-above counterjihadist effort makes eminent sense.

But programs such as these beg certain questions:

  • Are these programs based on a clear understanding of the enemy?
  • Are the people carrying out the programs competent?
  • Can we define success?
  • Is there any empirical evidence that suggest such programs have been successful in countering jihadism historically?
  • Do these programs represent the highest and best use of taxpayer dollars?

During the Cold War, we fought an ideological enemy in the Communists to great effect in part through propaganda delivered via radio, literature, and other means, challenging their totalitarian ideology, while illustrating that it was a failure and highlighting the blessings of freedom.

We conducted this ideological battle on the enemy’s own terms.

In the case of the jihadists, the enemy’s ideology is not based on a view of economics or history, but rather on faith.

Seeking to dissuade an enemy because of the horrific things Islamic State may do surely appeals to Westerners, but does it to the people Islamic State is seeking to recruit? In the Middle East, there is almost unanimous support according to Pew polls for making Sharia the law of the land. The Islamic State has built a caliphate ostensibly based on pure Sharia. Do we believe that Western messaging efforts are going to be able to compete with the Koran and hadith?

Generally speaking, as during the Cold War, information warfare is about demoralizing the enemy. Lauding liberty, and showing thriving Western life demoralized Communists. Jihadists alternatively view our infidel society as a decadent and corrupt affront to Islam.

One prospective way to demoralize them however is to show that we are stronger than them, and can dominate them wherever they seek to confront us. The strong horse is historically most respected in Islam-based nations.

Another initiative we can undertake —  in the private sector rather than through government —  is to lift up the voices of brave apostates and genuine anti-Sharia reformers. They will have more credibility than any Westerner seeking to dissuade Sharia supremacism, although we cannot know how effective such efforts will be. Apostasy is punishable by death, and challenging core religious tenets is likely to be met with substantial resistance.

Taxpayer dollars in the cyberspace might be far more effectively spent spreading disinformation meant to confuse the enemy on social media, infiltrating their information networks to obtain intelligence and thwart nefarious activities, and hacking and causing irreparable damage to their systems.

As the Middle East Media Research Institute writes:

The…Trump administration will have to deal with jihadis’ increased use of encrypted apps, Snapchat, and whatever social media emerge next. Many of his cabinet picks were asked about encryption during their confirmation hearings. If it does not move swiftly, the progress made over the past year on this issue may be lost; jihadis have shown great persistence in continually identifying and exploiting the weaknesses of these platforms, as well as constantly moving to new technologies and staying two steps ahead of Western security agencies.

Today’s generation of Internet-savvy millennial jihadis has infested U.S.-based social media platforms, relying on apps purchased from Google and Apple stores. They use them not only to disseminate their messages but also to recruit skilled individuals to hack websites, spread viruses, and carry out other cybercrimes.

…Right now, every single jihadi organization has an online presence, and every one of them is likewise investing tremendous resources in its cyber activity. These cyber-jihadis, led by ISIS, are swelling in number in the U.S., the West, and worldwide, and they are becoming more sophisticated by the day.

We must compete in cyberwarfare with the jihadis, but doing so requires knowing ourselves and knowing our enemy.

All efforts to do so must be oriented to the jihadist threat.

Programs in which success is not only highly uncertain but likely unquantifiable deserve the utmost scrutiny.

Precious resources —  whether in terms of dollars, people or technology —  ought to be invested wisely.

The American citizens deserve nothing less when it comes to ensuring their safety and security.

Ben Weingarten is Founder & CEO of ChangeUp Media LLC, a media consulting and publication services firm. A graduate of Columbia University, he regularly contributes to publications such as City Journal, The Federalist, Newsmax and PJ Media on national security/defense, economics and politics. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.