Why to Fear ISIS's Cyber Caliphate

The Buzz

Yes, most 12 year old children could probably figure out how to hack a Twitter feed.  But yesterday, the “Cyber Caliphate”— allegedly connected with the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham— managed to gain access to social media accounts of US Central Command, responsible for American security interests in the Middle East.

Ok, they've got our attention. And the message is: "we are tech savvier than you thought, and we want to do more."  The timing of the intrusion a week after the gruesome attacks in Paris is also not lost on us.

So, what is the Cyber Caliphate?  We don’t know much.  But some suggest that the ringleader is Briton Junaid Hussain who was once imprisoned for hacking into former Prime Minister Tony Blair's Gmail account.  Hussein has been connected with a group of hackers called Team Poison, which claims to have gained unauthorized access to the networks of Blackberry and NATO and teamed up with “Anonymous” to infiltrate banks.  Other reports indicate Hussain recruits digital experts to come to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS.  If accurate, this is extremely concerning.

The CENTCOM hack matters because it demonstrates that the Cyber Caliphate’s skills are developing.  No, the group didn’t access classified systems or even unclassified ones.  What’s more likely is that the group picked CENTCOM for a different reason – because it would get more attention than the previous intrusions they’ve claimed.  In the past month, the group twice hacked the Albuquerque Journal: once on Christmas Eve (the website) and once last week (the Twitter account).  The group also swapped out the main headline on New Mexico’s Mountain View Telegraph website and broke into Maryland's WBOC 16 tv station website and Twitter feed.  Changing headlines on a website is more complex than just obtaining a password and sneaking into Twitter. It's serious enough that the FBI is investigating.

It's easy to miss blips on the digital radar when there are so many, but if our miscalculation about the kinetic capabilities of ISIS is any measure, we ought to pay attention to the CENTCOM hack.  There’s been lots of chatter online about "cyberjihad" and "digitaljihad."  For months, we've seen messages boasting about advanced capabilities, better encryption and that cyber attacks against critical infrastructure in America and elsewhere are coming. ISIS's social media sophistication is impressive, and this online network is ready-made for seeking out sympathetic supporters with coding expertise. 

Last year, the former head of McAfee David DeWalt told the Financial Times that "We've begun to see signs that… terrorist organizations are attempting to gain access in cyber weaponry."  Software exploits can be bought relatively easily online.  How to use them is the hard part, but if those behind the Cyber Caliphate have better skills than we give them credit for, we need to act now.  Thankfully, earlier today the president provided Congress with another draft cyber security bill; hopefully politics won’t get in the way.

It's one thing to publish slick and engaging online magazines like Dubiq and even to use hashtags effectively to attract attention.  It's quite another to actively infiltrate websites and take over Twitter accounts.  Even if the Cyber Caliphate isn't directly related to ISIS (which it seems to be), the fact that someone wants to help this terror group with its digital offense is sobering.  Those of us tracking the electronic capabilities of terrorists have been anticipating this moment — with dread— for some time.  Today, it's just a non-violent intrusion into Twitter.  Tomorrow, it could be much more complicated.  We've got to actively prevent scenarios that could be much worse.

Meg King is the Strategic and National Security Adviser to the President & CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.

Image: Twitter

TopicsCyber SecurityTerrorism RegionsMiddle East

Anti-Ship Missiles: Could They Make Modern Navies Obsolete?

The Buzz

It’s traditionally said that “the sea commands the land.” But the relationship between the maritime and terrestrial domains is more complex than that suggests. Episodes like the attack against HMS Glamorgan in the closing stages of the 1982 Falklands War—the ship was hit by a land-based Exocet missile—show how sometimes the land may command the sea, or at least try to prevent the sea from commanding it. Technological progress over the ensuing decades, coupled with the current maritime tensions in the Indo-Pacific, and more generally the conflict between limited defense budgets and growing national naval ambitions, have revived the issue of land-based anti-ship missiles and the roles they should play. Interest is especially intense in countries building up their navies from a limited base (like the Philippines) or grappling with the realization that the conventional maritime balance is shifting against them (like Taiwan).

There are four basic questions:

- the degree to which shore-based missiles can prevent an enemy navy from operating freely in a given body of water;

- whether it’s more efficient to invest in those systems or in more traditional surface combatants;

- the vulnerability of missile launchers to enemy airpower and other systems, and;

- whether missile launchers should be camouflaged and dispersed among population centres or deployed only in non-built-up areas.

(Recommended: 5 Chinese Weapon of War America Should Fear

The first and the third are part of the perennial competition between sword and shield, with technological progress at different times favouring both defense and offense, although not always at the same rate. If we compare shore-launched missiles to their predecessors, coastal guns, we may note that one of their key advantages is their mobility. Traditionally, one of the main weaknesses in coastal defense has been the fixed nature of fortifications, and even in the case of mobile guns the limited scope for their redeployment. On the other hand, anti-ship missiles can easily be mounted on all sorts of vehicles, and take advantage of existing road networks, as well as employing the terrain, including mountains and forests, to hide. By doing so, ships lose—in part—one of their greatest advantages vis-a-vis coastal defenses, their superior mobility.

(Recommended: 5 Chinese Weapons of War Japan Should Fear

The fourth question, whether to deploy anti-ship missiles in populated areas, opens up a debate with technical, political, and ethical ramifications. In terms of camouflage, rural areas may offer the advantage of roads and forests, which may also mean better mobility and less likelihood of open-source detection, while cities may restrict the scope for a stronger enemy to conduct a limited campaign aimed at forcing a surrender without a full-scale air offensive. At the end of the day, the key question is whether to wage limited war trying to minimize civilian casualties, or to dare the enemy to escalate a conflict to a level involving widespread civilian casualties. The latter aspect is particularly important in a country like Taiwan, hoping to be assisted by partners and allies in the event of hostilities. A harsh moral dilemma is that such assistance may be facilitated by precisely the kind of damage from which any government is supposed to protect its population.

(Recommended: 5 American Weapons of War China Should Fear

Another important choice concerns the second issue mentioned above, the balance between surface combatants and shore missiles when it comes to investing in coastal defense. That’s a debate currently being conducted in the Philippines, a country striving to build a stronger navy and coastguard with US and Japanese assistance, and where some are arguing that missile launchers deployed in forested areas may provide a better deterrent than warships. That discussion echoes the wider debate, intense in Taiwan and in naval circles about the region, on how to react to China’s growing naval power, and in particular whether to abandon pretensions of sea control and conventional parity and go instead for sea denial and asymmetric naval warfare. In this regard, fast craft equipped with missiles are also seen by some observers as a better option than bigger ships, in particular when following an attrition strategy in which shore-launched missiles would be another component.

Finally, we have to take into account that many countries in the Indo-Pacific region considering the deployment of shore-launched anti-ship missiles are facing a range of maritime challenges, including the use of non-lethal force by a complex web of civilian entities (trawlers and oil rigs), state non-military actors (coastguards and similar agencies), and military forces, rather than just traditional navies acting in isolation. That makes procurement and doctrinal decisions even more complex, since it’s necessary to prevail in undeclared conflicts where conventional weapons cannot be used to repel aggression—in other words, in the grey area between war and peace now covering much of the region.

To sum up, shore-launched missiles proved their potential in the closing days of the Falklands War, a conflict much studied in the Indo-Pacific region, and later technological developments have ensured that interest in those systems remains high. But the systems engage a range of issues, many of which remain unsettled. Deeper exploration of those issues must lie at the heart of future decisions relating to procurement, deployment and use.

Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defense policy, international law, and military history, in the Indo-Pacific region.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

The Real South China Sea Problem: The Shadow of China

The Buzz

Linda Jakobson's recent report, China's Unpredictable Maritime Security Actors, is an important contribution for China watchers, especially for those who seek to understand the relationship between Chinese actions associated with its maritime disputes in Asia and its broader strategic approach to the region. This relationship is an important policy question because observers, including myself, worry that the past two years of assertive behaviour in the East and South China Seas foreshadows Beijing's approach its neighbourhood when “fully risen.”

Anxiety about heavy-handed Chinese hegemon-like behavior in the future has grown because many observers believe China's approach to maritime disputes is the product of a deliberate and systematic strategy carefully harmonized within China's party-military-civil structure. In short, what the region has been experiencing is a well thought out and superbly executed strategy.

Jakobson's report says “not so fast,” at least with regard to maritime disputes.

She argues, persuasively, that there is no evidence that China's recent actions in the maritime domain are part of a grand strategy China is pursuing to coerce its neighbors in a tailored way aiming towards a pre-defined goal. Her research convinces her that in China there is enough policy implementation flexibility for institutions with maritime interests (eg. local governments, law enforcement agencies, the People's Liberation Army, resource companies, and fishermen) to push their own agendas— particularly in the South China Sea. This results in more visibly assertive activity not specifically directed by Beijing. In short, Jakobson does not find an organized top-down structured “salami-slicing” strategic approach to China's maritime sovereignty disputes.

I found Jakobson's discussion of the interests of different Chinese entities (party, state, provincial, law enforcement, commercial plus the media) helpful, and whether or not one agrees with her conclusions regarding the absence of a comprehensive strategy, those seeking a clearer understanding of the various Chinese institutional interests involved in the maritime domain should read this report with care. I am working on a project related to President Xi Jinping's call for China to become a “maritime power,” and found Jakobson's work extremely useful.

Based on my own experience in the US Government, I find Jakobson's argument credible that various entities in China are pushing their own maritime interests while remaining within broad, and often vague, policy guidelines established by Xi. That is what good bureaucrats do. Within the US security establishment, hitching one's bureaucratic interests to authoritative Administration policy guidelines is normal procedure.

But in the US, if one goes too far and causes embarrassment or a political dust-up, it can be professionally damaging. Jakobson seems to suggest that Xi and policy makers at the highest level in China find it difficult to discipline entities that announce or execute embarrassing or counterproductive stances associated with “safeguarding China's sovereignty in the maritime domain.” I am not sure this argument holds up, given what Xi is willing to take on in his anti-corruption campaign.

But whether Jakobson is right or wrong, detailed plan or no detailed plan, China's actions in the East and South China Seas have had strategic effects. China has changed facts “on the water” to its advantage and at the same it has riven ASEAN on South China Sea maritime issues. And it has apparently gained wide public support with its tough stance on sovereignty claims.

However, from my perspective an argument can be made that the biggest strategic effect has been negative for Beijing. It has energized the Obama Administration's security relationship with the Philippines and encouraged most of China's neighbours seek closer ties with the US. It has reawakened Indonesia's concerns about the nine-dash line as well as its maritime frontier, and allowed Malaysia to become a new favourite of the Obama Administration, signing it up as a “comprehensive partner.”

So if Jakobson is right, will Xi and the Politburo Standing Committee come to the judgment that greater centralized control over its South China Sea actors is necessary to redress the adverse strategic effects of China's approach? In other words, will Beijing follow the first rule of trying to get out of a hole and stop digging?

Perhaps the digging has already stopped. The regional policies announced by Xi at November's APEC and G20 summits suggest it may have. If the current smile campaign with Southeast Asian neighbors continues, this would suggest that Jakobson's analysis is correct, and the center is cracking down on counterproductive activities.

Will this last, and is it a tactical or strategic change of policy aimed at assuaging concerns raised over the last two years of assertive maritime policies?

My bet is on tactical, because I think Xi and company are not all that worried about relations with China's neighbors. The realities of geography, military and vast economic power yield China essentially permanent advantages over its near neighbors. They are always going to live in the shadow of China, and their economies will continue to be become more closely integrated with China's. China's neighbors will always need Beijing more that it needs them. This leverage means that over the long term, whether control is centralized or not, China's strategic approach to maritime issues will leave little room for compromise.

Rear Admiral (Ret) Michael McDevitt has been at the Center for Naval Analyses since leaving active duty in 1997. During his Navy career, McDevitt held four at-sea commands, including command of an aircraft carrier battle group. He was a Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group fellow at the Naval War College and was director of the East Asia Policy Office for the Secretary of Defense during the George H.W. Bush Administration. He also served for two years as the director for Strategy, War Plans and Policy (J-5) for U.S. CINCPAC. McDevitt concluded his 34-year active-duty career as the Commandant of the National War College in Washington, D.C.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Sanctions and Symmetry in the Iran Negotiations

Paul Pillar

Notwithstanding the obvious asymmetries in soon-to-resume nuclear negotiations with Iran (it's Iran's nuclear program, not the U.S. one, that is being restricted; it's the United States, not Iran, that is sanctioning someone else's economy) the perceptual and political similarities that Americans and Iranians have brought to this encounter are striking to anyone who has been following the subject closely. To begin with, the chief policy-makers in each country clearly want to reach an agreement. On the Iranian side this includes not only the foreign minister who has been conducting the negotiations and the president who has been directly overseeing them but also the Iranian policy-maker who matters most: the supreme leader. It is almost inconceivable that Ayatollah Khamenei would have made it possible for President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif to have gone as far as they have already gone, and to sign Iran up to the commitments they already have made in the preliminary agreement reached in late 2013, if he did not genuinely share the objective of completing the negotiations and reaching a final agreement.

Both the U.S. president and the Iranian supreme leader have publicly voiced skepticism, however, as to whether the negotiations will in fact succeed. Probably the expressed doubts are in each case partly tactical, to limit the perceived political damage to each leader should the negotiations fail. But the doubts probably also reflect genuine assessments of the challenges that each side faces in reaching, and securing domestic support for, an agreement.

That gets to one of the clearest elements of symmetry between the two sides. Each government is burdened with substantial opposition from domestic elements that oppose any U.S.-Iranian accord. The hardline opponents on each side act and sound remarkably alike. Each is embedded in a broader domestic political opposition to the incumbent presidential administration and is quick to exploit any setback to that administration for political advantage (and each realizes that if the nuclear negotiations can be torpedoed that would be a significant setback for the president they oppose). Each never tires of demonizing the other country and attributes the most malevolent intentions to it. Each fulminates about how its own country's leaders are supposedly conceding too much and giving away the store. Each couches its opposition in terms of getting a better agreement, when in fact it does not want any agreement at all.

A reminder of how much of a factor is hardline opposition in Iran came the other day when hardliners in the Iranian parliament forced a sort of no-confidence vote over how Zarif has been handling the negotiations. Zarif prevailed, but just barely. Only 125 of the 229 legislators present voted in his favor, with 86 voting against.

The next big ploy of hardline opponents in the United States will be to push a new version of sanctions legislation similar to what Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez introduced in the previous Congress. The new version is still being written, but the previous version contained elements that might well have constituted a violation of the preliminary agreement, and if it had been enacted an unsurprising Iranian reaction—one that Iranian hardliners probably would have demanded—would have been to declare Iran's commitments under that agreement to be null and void and to walk away from the negotiating table. But let us assume, in line with what we have heard lately from the American hardliners, that the new version to be voted on as early as this month would not be a blatant violation of the existing agreement but instead would be a “conditional” measure that would impose additional sanctions on Iran if a final agreement were not reached by the deadlines that the negotiators had previously announced (March for a political agreement, and June for a full document with all technical details).

Now let us perform a thought experiment in which we imagine Iranian hardliners doing what would be their closest possible equivalent to what the American hardliners are trying to do. Imagine that the Iranian majlis, or parliament, enacts legislation that commits Iran to taking certain steps if agreement is not reached by the announced deadlines. Specifically, if there is no agreement, Iran would resume building up a stockpile of low-enriched uranium. It would resume enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level. It would resume development of the nuclear reactor at Arak in ways that would facilitate use of it to produce plutonium. It would rescind the additional special access given to international inspectors and revert to the lesser level of inspection consistent with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and prior agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency. In other words, the Iranian hardliners' legislation, just like the American hardliners' legislation, would undo commitments made in the preliminary agreement of November 2013. And just like the American hardliners, the Iranian hardliners would justify their legislation as a conditional measure that would help to provide an incentive to the other side to negotiate seriously and not to drag out the talks indefinitely. As such, the measure would be portrayed as an aid to negotiations rather than an undermining of them.

What would the U.S. reaction be to such an action in the majlis? Would the legislation, as claimed, make the U.S. administration more inclined than before to make concessions, increasing the likelihood that an agreement would be reached on the announced schedule? Of course not. Americans of various political stripes would denounce the action of the majlis as a major show of Iranian bad faith. The talk in Washington would not be about making more U.S. concessions but instead about what the United States could do to pressure Iran in return. Those who had openly questioned Iran's seriousness about wanting an agreement would say, ”We told you so.” Even those in the U.S. administration with high confidence in the good will of Rouhani would have their faith shaken in his ability to implement the terms of an agreement. And American hardliners would voice the most outrage of all (however much they would privately welcome this boost to their own deal-killing endeavors).

What works in one direction works in the other. The responses to the imaginary legislation of Iranian hardliners point to the likely responses to the (unfortunately real) legislation being cooked up by American hardliners. Iranians of various stripes would see it as a major show of American bad faith. It would amplify the already considerable doubts in Tehran about true American intentions and about the ability of even a well-intentioned Barack Obama to make good on the U.S. side of a deal in the face of resistance by a Republican Congress. In Iranian eyes it would make any further Iranian concessions seem less apt to bring desirable results, thus more risky politically for any Iranian leader to offer, and thus less likely to be offered. Consequently the negotiations would be more likely to fail. U.S. officials conducting the negotiations know what, which is why they oppose the legislation. Those pushing the legislation know that, too, which is why they are pushing it.

It is usually only when speaking in private or when too inexperienced or naive to disguise true intentions that the pushers acknowledge their objective. More often they promote the idea that what they are doing will provide the United States with useful leverage and induce Iran to make still more concessions. And some people genuinely believe that. This is one of several respects in which Americans tend to believe that bargaining with another state works in an asymmetric, exceptionalist way, in which other humans respond to pressures and inducements in a fundamentally different manner from how Americans themselves respond, when in fact there is far more symmetry. Thinking in role-reversal terms might help to correct that mistaken belief.                                                   


TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

North Korea Wants To Buy Russia's Super Advanced Su-35 Fighter Jet

The Buzz

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un sent a special envoy to Moscow to ask Russia to sell him its most advanced fighter jets, South Korean and Russian media are reporting.

On Thursday, a senior South Korean military official told JoongAng Ilbo, a conservative South Korean daily newspaper, that North Korea officially asked Russia to sell it the Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet. Notably, the Russian state-owned ITAR-TASS news agency picked up the JoongAng Ilbo report on its website on Friday.

According to the original report, the request was made in November when Choe Ryong-hae, North Korea’s number two, traveled to Russia as Kim Jong-un’s special envoy. During the trip, Choe met with Vladimir Putin and gave the Russian president a letter from Kim.

“Choe Ryong-hae, who visited Moscow as a special envoy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in November last year, asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to provide Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets,” JoongAng Ilbo quoted the military source as saying. The source added that he didn’t believe Russia would consent to the sale because of international sanctions against North Korea.

(Recommended: 5 Russian Weapons of War NATO Should Fear

As Dave Majumdar wrote in The National Interest last month, the Su-35 “is the most potent fighter currently in operation with the Russian Air Force. The powerful twin-engine fighter, which is an advanced derivative of the original Soviet-era Su-27, is high flying, fast and carries an enormous payload. That, combined with its advanced suite of avionics, makes the Su-35 an extremely dangerous foe to any U.S. fighter, with the exception of the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.”

The 4++ generation fighter jet would be a substantial upgrade over the North Korean Air Force’s current arsenal, which mostly consists of outdated Chinese and Russian platforms like the MiG-21 and Su-25. North Korea purchased these aircraft from Russia in the waning days of the Soviet Union.

North Korea has long sought more modernized aircraft to compete with the South Korean and American fleets. However, as the military source told JoongAng Ilbo, “The North produces many weapons systems domestically, but it appears to have sought Russia’s help because building fighter jets requires more complex technologies.”

(Recommended: 5 Weapons Russia Could Use in An Arctic War)

It’s not the first time that North Korea has gone abroad in search of more modernized fighters. Kim Jong-un’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong-Il, asked Russia to sell it advanced fighter aircraft during summits in 2001 and 2002. Kim Jong-Il returned to Moscow in 2011 to again ask Russia to sell it fighter jets. That same year, the former North Korean leader also traveled to Beijing to ask then-Chinese President Hu Jintao to sell North Korea J-10 and J-11 stealth fighters. Hu rejected the request.

(Recommended: 5 North Korean Weapons of War S. Korea Should Fear)

Even if Russia won’t sell Pyongyang the Su-35, Moscow has shown an interest in strengthening ties to the Hermit Kingdom in recent months. Last month, a Kremlin spokesperson announced that Putin has invited Kim Jong-un to Moscow in May of this year to celebrate the 70 anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat. If Kim accepts the invitation, it would be his first trip abroad since taking over power in North Korea following his father’s death in late 2011.  

Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia/Aleksander Markin

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia-Pacific