Security Experts:

U.K. Launched Major Cyberattack on Islamic State: Spy Chief

The head of Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) revealed this week that the U.K. has launched a major cyberattack on the Islamic State (IS) group, significantly disrupting its operations.

The attack was launched by the GCHQ in collaboration with the U.K. Ministry of Defence. The operation was the “first time the UK has systematically and persistently degraded an adversary’s online efforts as part of a wider military campaign,” GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming told an audience at the Cyber UK conference in Manchester.

“These operations have made a significant contribution to coalition efforts to suppress Daesh propaganda, hindered their ability to coordinate attacks, and protected coalition forces on the battlefield,” the spy chief said.

According to Fleming, these operations have been aimed at disrupting services or a specific online activity, deter an individual or group, or destroy equipment and networks used by the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh.

“In 2017 there were times when Daesh found it almost impossible to spread their hate online, to use their normal channels to spread their rhetoric, or trust their publications. Of course, the job is never done – they will continue to evade and reinvent. But this campaign shows how targeted and effective offensive cyber can be,” Fleming said.

Ilia Kolochenko, CEO of web security firm High-Tech Bridge, says such attacks are not surprising.

“In the near future, we will see more offensive cyber operations backed by nations under attack. Unfortunately, cybercriminals, drug dealers and terrorists enjoy almost absolute impunity in the digital world, causing more damage there than on the streets, and it’s good to see the UK take a stand,” Kolochenko told SecurityWeek. “The efforts to suppress propaganda and hinder coordinated attacks will ultimately protect UK citizens.”

“From a legal point of view, it may be a tricky question, however,” Kolochenko added, “as some of their targets may be European or American citizens, raising complicated issues of the international law.”

The US military's secretive Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) and Europol have also been conducting operations aimed at the Islamic State’s online activities.

Pro-IS groups have continued launching hacker attacks and spreading propaganda, with some experts believing the terrorist organization has taken refuge in its “virtual caliphate.” However, even online, where its capabilities have for years already been described as relatively weak and poorly organized, IS has been in decline.

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.