The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has grown much more powerful and dangerous than al Qaeda was before or since 11 September 2001. Its strength stems from an ability to spread its violent message and recruit globally—including U.S citizens—to join its cause. Its tactics include exploiting the Internet and global networks. Its objective is first to control the terrain in Syria and Iraq and then to establish a global caliphate of radical Islamic believers. Its ultimate goal is to undermine and destroy Western belief systems. Yet, instead of conducting offensive operations aimed to shut down ISIL’s recruitment networks, current U.S. cyber efforts are focused overly on defending friendly networks and preventing the spillage of classified information.
ISIL achieved international attention for the videotaped execution of Jordanian pilot Lieutenant Moath al-Kasasbeh, who was burned alive while confined in a cage. The public outrage united Jordan with the United States against ISIL, but it also brought widespread publicity. Laura Ryan notes in her 9 October 2014 National Journal article, “For ISIL, all attention is good attention. Their penchant for theatrical violence reflects their ruthless nature and nonchalant attitude toward their reputation among the wider Muslim community.”
Rukmini Callimachi, in the same issue of the National Journal, describes how Alex, a 23-year-old woman from rural Washington, was targeted for recruitment. The story reveals how ISIL infiltrates the living rooms of homes throughout the United States. First, an ISIL operative connects with Westerners in chat rooms or through social media. After finding and forming a relationship with a potential recruit, the ISIL recruiter begins converting the target to a radical form of Islam. A successful conversion usually concludes once the Westerner makes the journey to a Muslim land, such as Syria, and begins working for ISIL. Luckily for Alex, her family reported the suspicious activity to the FBI before she made the trek to the Middle East.
The United States was less fortunate on 2 December 2015 in San Bernardino, California, where a radicalized couple claiming allegiance to ISIL shot 14 people. The couple communicated to fellow jihadists through email and various chat rooms. The terrorists’ communications went undetected by the entire U.S. government—civilian and military.
The Marine Corps must stop treating cyber warfare as a radical new way of thinking and rely on maneuver warfare to fight and defeat ISIL.
Maneuver warfare, according to Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1, is based on “rapid, flexible, and opportunistic maneuver.” Identifying and attacking an enemy’s center of gravity by exploiting a critical vulnerability is the first step. A center of gravity is an important source of strength for the enemy, whereas a critical vulnerability is a weakness.
The center of gravity for ISIL is the Internet. It is the one tool it needs to recruit new members, promote their radical beliefs, and generate money for operations. A critical vulnerability for ISIL is that its members must expose themselves in the cyber realm to carry out those tasks. In the same way an enemy exposes himself to small arms fire in a conventional fight, he exposes himself on social media in the cyber domain.
When ISIL terrorists engage to recruit new members in chat rooms, on Twitter, and through posts of violent videos, they make themselves vulnerable to being identified. Imagine if the ISIL member trying to recruit Alex had been talking to a cybersecurity Marine posing as an interested Muslim. This would have generated actionable intelligence for the Marine Corps and the joint forces.
Maneuvering in the cyber realm will require Marine Forces Cyber to be reinforced with a company of cyber Marines with open source computers who can track potential terrorists inside ISIL websites and chat rooms. We must empower Marines with cyber skills to design and post counterterrorism advertisements in ISIL chat rooms and to warn people who are being contacted by ISIL.
Cyber Marines could be attached to the current Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF). The footprint for a cyber team attached to a rifle company could be a pair of specialists who seek to locate high-value targets by posing on the Internet as ISIL sympathizers. Even Marine rifle squads—the backbone of distributed operations—could develop a cyber capability by qualifying Marines with a secondary military occupational specialty (MOS) in cyber operations.
Marines must fight cyber operations in same manner the Corps fights all conflicts, with maneuver. Cyber warfare may be new for the Marine Corps but fighting a determined enemy is not. It is time to get aggressive and stop ISIL from using the Internet to recruit new members.
Captain Smith is a student at the Expeditionary Warfare School. He is an infantry officer who has served as a platoon commander, including two tours in Afghanistan.