The hackers who breached and defaced the Twitter and YouTube pages of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) demonstrated immature behavior and a lack of preparation, according to experts. In the end, the hackers depended on the American people being moved by a prank, amplified by our lightning fast media.
The breach was done by a group calling itself the Cyber Caliphate, and for around 30 minutes on Jan. 12, it gained control over the Twitter and YouTube pages of CENTCOM, the Department of Defense’s unified command for the area that includes the Middle East. The Cyber Caliphate replaced the background images on the Web pages with images supporting ISIS terrorists (also called the “Islamic State”) and posted messages and videos supporting their cause.
While the breach targeted CENTCOM, it was not a breach of CENTCOM itself. The breach was on Twitter and YouTube. And while the hackers claimed to “leak” information, CENTCOM wrote in a statement that no classified information was posted.
“We should consider this nothing more than ‘cyber mindgames’—attempted social media based PSYOPS [psychological operations]—which occurs all the time in interactions with radical Islamist terrorists,” said Robert Bunker, adjunct professor at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, in an email.
PSYOPS is one of those military terms that isn’t widely known, but it has affected most people in the modern world. As Bunker wrote in a recent report, “Terrorism as Disruptive Targeting” published in TRENDS Research & Advisory, that psychological impact is one of the main goals of terrorism.
“One can think of the attack as dropping a pebble into a tranquil pond—the point of impact is inconsequential—rather the ripples created on the pond surface serve as the attacking mechanism,” Bunker wrote, comparing the ripples to the psychological impact of a terrorist attack.
The psychological impact of terrorism, he wrote, can have broad implications. It’s a tool that affects societal bonds and makes people not trust each other. It’s a tool that creates fear and impacts goodwill towards the military and law enforcement.
Among the main culprits of spreading the psychological impact of terrorism is the viral nature of modern media coverage—where speed takes precedent over depth and analysis, and where sensationalism takes precedent over accuracy.
“The perpetrators leveraged that component of the global media that chases new stories on a daily basis, ultimately boosting the disruptive effects of the incident in similar fashion to what we would see in a physical terrorist attack,” Bunker said in the email.
Yet, taken for what it was, Bunker said, the CENTCOM breach was just “cybervandalism… meant to both ridicule and threaten the U.S. military and its members.” He said it was “a mini-disruptive attack” that included “some juvenile elements like the ‘i love you isis'” and Jihadi propaganda videos.
Taken as a whole, Bunker said, the approach the hackers took only acted to “downgrade the impression of the attack’s level of sophistication.”
Cyberterrorism is a new phenomena, and according to Max Abrahms, a terrorism expert and professor at Northeastern University, there is little historical data to compare the attacks to.
Terrorism, Abrahms said, is typically defined by a few criteria. To be defined as terrorism, an incident needs to be done by non-state actors and be directed against noncombatants, “in order to spread fear for some kind of political mean.”
Abrahms said the attack on CENTCOM’s social media accounts “is really an ambiguous case,” when it comes to whether or not it was an act of terrorism.
Contrary to popular belief, Abrahms noted, violence is not necessarily a criteria for defining terrorism. “If you were to look at a dataset at the universal known terrorist attacks since the advent of modern terrorism since 1970,” he said, “you’d see a huge percentage of them did not kill anyone.”
What terrorism comes down to is psychological impact—the act of inciting fear and terror among a targeted group of people.
With the CENTCOM attack, whether it was a terrorist attack or not comes down to how the intended victims behave. The ripples in the pond that Bunker wrote as emanating from a terror attack only disrupt the American people if they the people allow the disruption.
It goes back to that old British saying, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” and CENTCOM itself seems to have the right idea. “CENTCOM will restore service to its Twitter and YouTube accounts as quickly as possible,” it said in a statement. “We are viewing this purely as a case of cybervandalism.”