Following a request from the White House, the United States Department of Defense is considering options to launch offensive cyber operations of an unprecedented scale against the Islamic State.
The White House reportedly issued the request soon after the December 2 shooting in San Bernardino, California, in response to reports that the two shooters were radicalized through exposure to online propaganda by the Islamic State. According to American government officials, US President Barack Obama directed the Pentagon to put together a report outlining options for “a stepped up cyber offensive” against online activities by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The report is allegedly being prepared by the US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), the Pentagon office responsible for conducting what the US military calls “full spectrum military cyberspace operations”. Offensive cyber security planners at USCYBERCOM, which is located at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, are said to have prepared plans that include proposals to launch numerous computer viruses, denial-of-service attacks and other cyber weapons against computers, internet servers and cell phone networks belonging to the Islamic State. The idea behind the plan is that an all-out online war against the Sunni militant group would hurt its image and prevent it from launching armed attacks against civilian targets abroad.
However, Canadian newspaper The Toronto Star reports that a number of other US agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have voiced objections to the USCYBERCOM plan, arguing that an all-out cyber war against the Islamic State could backfire. Specifically, some US intelligence officials argue that sabotaging online communications nodes, as well as cell phone networks, would make it harder to spy on the Islamic State. Additionally, such a move would hinder the work of aid groups, opposition forces, and even Western-backed rebel forces in the Levant, who rely on the same Internet and cellular networks to communicate with each other. These officials argue instead that the US should opt for surgical attacks on specific computers or cell phones used by senior Islamic State planners.
According to media reports, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is scheduled to meet with USCYBERCOM commanders this week in order to evaluate the possibilities for offensive cyber attacks against the Islamic State. He will then brief President Barack Obama on the available options.