Digital World War: Islamists, Extremists, and the Fight for Cyber Supremacy
By Haroon K. Ullah
Yale University Press, 2017, 336 pp.
The debate about how digital communications technology is transforming conflict takes place on a spectrum: on one end sit those warning of a “cyber–Pearl Harbor”; on the other sit a variety of skeptics who point to the difficulty of gaining a lasting political benefit from cyberattacks. Kello situates himself closer to the first group and argues that the emergence of cyberweapons in the twenty-first century has been as revolutionary in its implications as the introduction of nuclear weapons was in the twentieth. Atomic arsenals threatened unprecedented mass destruction, but they mostly fit within traditional models of interstate war. Cyberweapons, on the other hand, do not kill directly but can interfere with systems that do, and they empower nonstate actors as much as states. Using familiar examples—the Stuxnet virus, which the United States and Israel directed against Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities; North Korea’s hacking of Sony Pictures; the Russian cyberattack on Estonia in 2007; and Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016—Kello addresses the danger of escalation, the prospects for cyberdefense and cyberdeterrence, and the problem of crafting legal remedies for malevolent behavior.
Ullah zeroes in on one part of the virtual battlefield. Drawing on observations he made while working for the U.S. State Department during the Obama administration, he presents a series of case studies from the Muslim world. He reveals the sophistication and enthusiasm with which Islamists have exploited social media to proselytize, nurture new recruits, and spread propaganda or news of a coming demonstration. Violent jihadists also use encrypted sites to discuss how to carry out acts of terror in the real world. The potential for social media to circumvent official censorship, especially in countries where Internet access is widespread, means that it can provide a vital outlet for public frustrations and can be used to support a variety of causes. But as Islamist leaders have learned, it is difficult to impose message discipline online; radical groups often wind up arguing among themselves. The most powerful lesson Ullah draws—illustrated best by the example of Egypt in the years after the revolts of 2011—is that when it comes to seizing power, as opposed to merely expressing and stoking disaffection, the winners tend to be strong leaders with a clear purpose and an effective organization.