An unprecedented Pentagon cyber-offensive against the Islamic State has gotten off to a slow start, officials said, frustrating Pentagon leaders and threatening to undermine efforts to counter the militant group’s sophisticated use of technology for recruiting, operations and propaganda.
The U.S. military’s new cyberwar, which strikes across networks at its communications systems and other infrastructure, is the first major, publicly declared use by any nation’s military of digital weapons that are more commonly associated with covert actions by intelligence services.
The debut effort is testing the ability of the military’s seven-year-old U.S. Cyber Command’s to conduct offensive operations against an enemy that has proved to be an adept user of technology to organize operations, recruit fighters and move money.
But defense officials said the command is still working to put the right staff in place and has not yet developed a full suite of malware and other tools tailored to attack an adversary dramatically different than the nation-states Cybercom was created to fight.
In an effort to accelerate the pace of digital operations against the Islamic State, the Cybercom commander, Adm. Michael S. Rogers, created a unit in May headed by Lt. Gen. Edward Cardon that is tasked with developing digital weapons — fashioned from malware and other cyber-tools — that can intensify efforts to damage and destroy the Islamic State’s networks, computers and cellphones.
The group, called Joint Task Force Ares, is coordinating operations more closely with U.S. Central Command, which is leading the military fight, and working to sharpen offensive operations.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter has pressed Rogers repeatedly to pick up the pace of the nascent cyber-offensive, ensuring it plays a more active role in the overall campaign against the Islamic State.
“Cybercom has not been as effective as the Department would expect them to be, and they’re not as effective as they need to be,” said a senior defense official who, like other officials, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. “They need to deliver results.”
Although officials declined to detail current operations, they said that cyberattacks occurring under the new task force might, for instance, disrupt a payment system, identify a communications platform used by Islamic State members and knock it out, or bring down Dabiq, the Islamic State’s online magazine.