The Pentagon secretly deployed cyber warriors to infiltrate the computer accounts of Islamic State members last year in order to disrupt the terror group’s online propaganda efforts, according to a new report.
Beginning late last year, the U.S. Cyber Command hijacked several administrator accounts used to propagate material on behalf the group otherwise known as ISIS or ISIL, The Washington Post reported Tuesday citing several current and former U.S. officials.
Military hackers then changed the passwords to the compromised accounts to prevent ISIS operatives from regaining access, all the while deleting associated content, including battlefield videos and other propaganda, according to The Post.
The mission, Operation Glowing Symphony, sought to sabotage the Islamic State’s ability to spread extremist content across the internet, The Post said.
“At a very basic level, what they were trying to do was remove content that the adversary was putting out there,” a former defense official told the newspaper on condition of anonymity. “It didn’t require exquisite tools.”
According to The Post’s report, however, the operation endured hiccups after igniting a debate within the U.S. government centered around whether the Pentagon was required to notify allied partners potentially implicated by its actions.
While ultimately hailed as successful by The Post’s government sources, the operation quickly raised red flags outside the Defense Department as other agencies learned it involved penetrating foreign computer servers, potentially undermining international cooperation agreements between U.S. agencies and allied counterparts abroad, the newspaper reported.
“It’s a tricky thing to navigate,” said one of the sources, identified as a former U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Think how we would react if one of our allies undertook a cyber operation that affected servers here in the United States without giving us a heads-up.”
Pentagon officials eventually made a list of about three dozen countries other than Iraq and Syria potentially hosting computer servers used by ISIS, The Post reported. About 15 countries were ultimately notified of Cyber Commands’ plans, but the Pentagon only pursued targets in five or six nations once Operation Glowing Symphony got off the ground last November, weeks behind schedule, according to the report.
Terrorism experts have long attributed the internet with boosting the Islamic State’s recruitment efforts and amplifying its ability to disperse propaganda, the likes of which for years has triggered reactions from the U.S. and its allies on the internet as well as online: Junaid Hussain, a British hacker accused of formerly spearheading the group’s social media operations, was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2015.