The latest skirmish in the Propaganda Wars has all the elements of farce, many of the elements of a mystery, and quite a few of the elements of FUD.
For those of you just joining this shades-of-grey morass, here’s the short form: Today for about two hours the YouTube and Twitter accounts of US Central Command, ie CENTCOM, were taken over by the “Cyber Caliphate,” a self-declared arm of ISIS with a (now suspended) Twitter account less than a week old. They uploaded some scary 140-character screeds and a few rah-rah ISIS-related videos before the accounts were suspended, soon to be returned, sanitized, to the original owner.
A Twitter takeover rather than a bomb, invasion, or shooting? You’d be right in thinking this is a game played by the (very anti-ISIS) Syrian Electronic Army. It’s not a behaviour ISIS itself has engaged in to date, nor do they typically refer to themselves as “ISIS,” as the astute team of Jacob Siegel and Nancy A. Youssef noted in the Daily Beast. It’s as if the US military hacked a jihadi account and posted tweets referring to itself, the US military, as The Great Satan or something.
It’s Just Not Done.
So, there are reasons to wonder who’s truly behind the actio. While the term “Cyber Caliphate” has been tossed around for months as a metaphor in the media devoted to covering the intersection of IRL and online war, it’s never been understood to refer to a specific, defined group united under that name. It’s not, and never has been, a hacker crew name. Registering a Twitter account doesn’t make you a hacker crew.
Today’s strike, temporary as it was, was nonetheless a propaganda victory for forces which wanted to show CENTCOM to be less than invulnerable. That does not mean the attack was perpetrated by ISIS or even ISIS supporters; the US has many enemies, and many reasons for subtle propaganda moves that do no lasting harm.
Remember, as well, that during AntiSec’s run, they continually hacked the FBI’s websites, creating a propaganda win for Anonymous and hacktivism in general. It later emerged, of course, that they had been so successful because the FBI themselves were allowing it to happen, through their informant Hector Monsegur (Sabu). So the US is no stranger to withstanding a little public egg on the face in return for other, more valuable considerations.
Speaking of Disinformation, the faceless king of the faildox has declared war. Again.
You may remember TheAnonMessage as the Anon who went rogue in OpFerguson and fingered the wrong person as the officer who shot Mike Brown in Ferguson, causing the innocent man to fear for his safety. You may, on the other hand, recall him as the one who single-handedly (except for Twitter spammers and sock puppets) declared war on ISIS many months and zero victories ago in #OpIceISIS; the video for that operation has had over 175,000 views, and there have been no actual results so far, other than dozens of blustering articles in the mainstream mediasphere. You may have grieved for him when he died that one time. You may have never heard of him before, in which case you’re lucky and you’re clearly not in the media. If there is one thing he succeeds, rather than fails, at, it’s getting the attention of the media. His pastebin press release on today’s events has already had 1700 views, for instance, despite saying nothing in particular.
Getting back to the mysterious Cyber Caliphate … the “I love you ISIS” construction that they displayed in the CENTCOM Twitter header is not common in the actual jihadi movement, but is a trademark of Team System DZ, the allegedly Algerian, but possibly Israeli, hacker crew which specializes in defacing out-of-date WordPress sites. If they are Algerian they are sincere but lame; if they are Israeli the lameness is the entire point of the exercise, other than aggravating the innocent victims, to prejudice them against Islamic fundamentalists. There were indeed several French defaces displaying the trademark the day of the attack at Charlie Hebdo, although the crew is baldly opportunistic, choosing websites at random, and it could merely be a coincidence.
The Twitter and YouTube takeovers were almost certainly accomplished by the SEA technique of spearphishing, ie sending fake emails to a large number of people in the target organization, hoping one will click on it and be fooled into putting in his or her username and password. It’s an old trick, but a highly effective one. Note that it does not expose any databases to hacking, etc; the hacker literally gains whatever access the person who fell for it has. Spearphishing is not an advanced hacker technique, to say the least, but it can be incredibly effective if an organization is large enough: the larger the organization, the greater the chance that it contains within it a patsy who will fall for this.
The documents uploaded to Pastebin by the Cyber Caliphate have been taken down, but they have been mirrored elsewhere: there is no classified material in the release. In fact, all of the contents appear to have been pulled from the military’s public websites, supplemented with a little judicious Googling. As Adam Weinstein points out in FortressAmerica, the social media accounts were not used for operational objectives, just for posting information for the general public, so how much damage could interfering with them for an hour or two actually do?
In short, no actual harm was done, by a group which appears not to exist.
Meanwhile, back in the real world:
Featured Image via Ian Bremmer on Twitter
Categories: Activism, Air Force, Anonymous, Army, Breaking, Communication, Conspiracy, Crews, Cyber, Cyber Caliphate, Cyberwar, Defaces, False Flag, FBI, Hackers, ISIS, Jihad, Navy, News, Pentagon, Propaganda, Security, US Government, War