There was a certain irony to the news that @CENTCOM had been hacked yesterday afternoon. While President Obama was giving a speech on cybersecurity, the U.S. Central Command Twitter account was spouting pro-Isis propaganda.
Nothing new here, though. Since day one, Isis have used the internet to threaten the West and in particular American soldiers. During a few days in August last year, my research group tracked eighty thousand tweets sent using the hashtag #AMessageFromISIStoUS from Isis sympathisers. Many of them contained grisly threats: images of US casualties and coffins with warnings not to interfere in the affairs of the Caliphate.
Cyber-jihad is a natural evolution of terrorism. Islamic State seem to have caught the world unawares by their use of the internet. They have built apps to circulate their message. Their videos capture the Hollywood of Jihad in high definition. Propaganda has been thrust into the faces of a Western audience, while they are sat at home, safely browsing social media. It has never been so easy to upset and scare people.
Twitter has been a key battleground. Despite the site’s best attempts, Isis have proven stubborn, their content difficult to police and censor. Account suspensions have proved ineffective, as a ‘swarm’ of users simply republish the names and new handles of those removed: @ISISNews is on its tenth incarnation.
It isn’t surprising, then, that the Centcom Twitter account was targeted. It underlines that Isis are listening to us, just as we’re listening to them. Western analyses of the situation in Syria and Iraq frequently appear in Isis propaganda videos. Up until the hack, @CENTCOM had been used to publicise American strikes on Isis positions. In part then, it was an anti-Isis media outlet, and therefore a reasonable target for pro-Isis hackers.
Assuming the breach is as low-key as is being reported, the main question is ‘whodunit’? The account could have been hacked from anywhere. Vast numbers of pro-Isis tweets have been sent from Saudia Arabia, from India and from Russia in the past months. @AnonyOps, a Twitter account affiliated with the hacktivist collective Anonymous, claims to have tracked yesterday’s hacker as coming from Maryland in the US, though this should be taken with a pinch of salt.
What is clear, however, is that it doesn’t take much to be an Isis member. Amedy Coulibaly, who murdered four people in Paris and Mountrouge last week, pledged allegiance to the movement while sitting underneath an A4 flag he’d printed out. The hostage taker in Sydney had forgotten his flag, but offered to release a hostage if somebody brought him one. Travelling to Syria or Iraq is no longer a predicate for becoming a terrorist in the Islamic State’s name: all the contacts, material and propaganda that might be associated with planning and carrying out a terrorist attack can be found online.
The hack on @CENTCOM is likely to have fallen in this vein. A ‘lone wolf’, sympathetic to Isis but with no ‘formal’ links carrying the hack out from their bedroom. The internet has brought us all a bit closer. The distance between a wannabe terrorist and extremist content, the distance between a cyberterrorist and their targets, and the distance between their acts and their onlookers. This is the real threat of #CyberJihad: that anybody can get involved.