Why Terrorists Are Hacking the American Military's Social Media Accounts

By Nadav Morag, PhD

Twitter hacked by ISISHackers claiming affiliation with Islamic State (IS), the terrorist and guerrilla organization that controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq, were able to take control of the social media accounts of the U.S. military command responsible for the Middle East and Central Asia - USCENTCOM (Central Command). These hackers made threats to military personnel, embedded links to propaganda videos (including images of beheadings) and posted military documents (none of which were classified).

The actual act of hacking into military social media websites does not, in and of itself, represent any threat to national security. Needless to say, the military does not use social media websites for its critical communications, nor does it put classified materials on those websites or otherwise make those materials accessible to hackers on the Internet. The Department of Defense (DoD) has a separate computer network for classified materials that is not linked to the Internet, and most cases of serious leaks of classified information were the result of insiders leaking the materials, via the Internet or otherwise. 

However, the fact that hackers who are seemingly affiliated with one of America's main international adversaries, were able to hijack CENTCOM's social media outlets is useful to IS because terrorism is as much about branding and public relations as it is about violence. That should come as no surprise given that terrorism is an inherently political activity. It is about influencing people and in this case, through creating fear in their targets and admiration in their supporters. 

By pulling this sort of stunt, IS can demonstrate that it has cyber capabilities. Terrorists are always searching for ways to convince people that they are more powerful than they really are and it can portray the U.S. military as powerless and get publicity. (They couldn't defend their own cyberspace....perhaps next time they won't be able to defend US territory either?)

Just like any good marketing strategy, if people see your brand enough, they are more likely to buy it. If people see and hear about IS or any terrorist organization enough times, they may want to join, thus bolstering the organization's ranks. And these new members may want to carry out attacks in the United States and Europe in order to show solidarity with the terrorist organization's brand (as with the recent attacks in Paris that were inspired by Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula).

So while hacking U.S. military social media sites can be brushed off as embarrassing but essentially harmless, the possibility of people here at home being inspired by IS successes (whether on the battlefield or in cyberspace) is unquestionably a serious threat to national security.

If you don't believe that terrorist groups can, through social media efforts (among other things), inspire people in other countries to carry out terrible acts of violence that shock entire societies, just ask the French.

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