How The NSA And U.S. Cyber Command Hacked ISIS's Media Operation In 2016, the U.S. launched a classified military cyberattack against ISIS to bring down its media operation. NPR interviewed nearly a dozen people who lived it.
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How The U.S. Hacked ISIS

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How The U.S. Hacked ISIS

How The U.S. Hacked ISIS

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DINA TEMPLE-RASTON (HOST): From NPR, this is I'LL BE SEEING YOU, a four-part series about the technologies that watch us. I'm Dina Temple-Raston. On August 24, 2015, a 21-year-old British hacker named TriCk stepped out of an Internet cafe in Raqqa, Syria, and climbed into his car. He didn't know it, but he'd been under surveillance for days. He pulled into a gas station, and just as he started filling the tank, a single Hellfire missile came down on him like a meteor from the sky. He was killed instantly.

ED CARDON (LT GEN, US ARMY): He was the IT - one of the IT people for ISIS. He was very good. There's probably not another like him.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's General Ed Cardon, and he's a key player in a story that's never been told before.

CARDON: In this space, I know one thing: talent matters. And when the talent's not there, it's not as good.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This is a story about terrorist hackers and how a secretive military unit fought them in cyberspace. When TriCk was killed, ISIS was at its strongest. Just a year earlier, ISIS had surprised everyone by capturing the city of Mosul from Iraqi forces in just four days.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1 (REPORTER): Islamic militants seized control of Iraq's second-largest city on Tuesday.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2 (REPORTER): The militants have begun to impose Islamic Sharia law, hard-line Sharia...

SCOTT PELLEY (JOURNALIST): Another major piece of what America fought for in Iraq was lost today.

TEMPLE-RASTON: When all this was going on, Eric Rosenbach was the assistant secretary of defense for homeland and global security, and he was worried about the group's success on another field of battle.

ERIC ROSENBACH (FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR HOMELAND AND GLOBAL SECURITY): The center of gravity was not only their territory but their ability to use the Internet.

TEMPLE-RASTON: ISIS was using the Internet in ways no other terrorist organization ever had. It created what it called the Cyber Caliphate, a division dedicated to transmitting ISIS' message out to followers around the world.

They published a popular online magazine called Dabiq, which tore a page out of al-Qaida's playbook and published articles about how to launch attacks. The Cyber Caliphate had teams dedicated to posting on Facebook and Twitter; an entire media department filled with cameramen, graphic designers, and even editors; and very high-quality videos that could only be described as ISIS snuff films depicting beheadings, the burning of prisoners alive - all shot with drones and GoPro cameras. The most famous of their offerings was a full-length feature called "Flames Of War."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARTILLERY FIRING)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Don't just sit there, the video seemed to say. Come to Syria; be part of the fight. And young men and women were listening, literally lining up at the Turkish border trying to get to Raqqa. And it was clear that the U.S. had to find a way to get ISIS off the Internet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNINDENTIFIED SINGERS (SINGERS): (Singing in foreign language).

TEMPLE-RASTON: These days, just about all armed conflict includes cyber, whether it means tracking the digital dust of an enemy or hacking into their networks. When people talk about offensive cyber, that's what they mean - attacks in cyberspace. And probably the most famous of these attacks is one that slipped out into the wild in 2010. It was known as Stuxnet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1 (GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL): A computer virus called Stuxnet was discovered lurking in the databanks of power plants, traffic control systems and factories around the world.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Stuxnet was never supposed to be discovered, much less find its way into control systems around the world. It was designed to gum up the works in a very specific uranium enrichment plant in Iran. And even this much later, no one wants to talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2 (GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL): Because it's classified.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3 (GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL): Unfortunately, I can't comment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4 (GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL): I do not know how to answer that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5 (GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL): Two answers before you even get started. I don't know. And if I did, we wouldn't talk about it anyway.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Even so, it's an open secret that back in 2007, President Obama approved a secret cyberattack that would run Iran's nuclear weapons program aground, and Stuxnet is what they came up with. The zeros and ones had the same effect a bomb might have had. The virus made the centrifuges in the enrichment plant spin too fast, and they literally blew up.

ROSENBACH: You could spend years developing an option for one specific case.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Like, say, a specific Iranian enrichment facility - but the U.S. had nothing in its arsenal that could be used more generally against anyone.

ROSENBACH: It's evolving that way in cyberspace, but it had not been like that five or 10 years ago.

TEMPLE-RASTON: When ISIS burst on the scene, Cyber Command, or Cybercom, hadn't developed ways to respond to all the new apps and new programs that gave groups like ISIS new advantages. Encryption, for example, used to be something that only Fortune 500 companies or governments had access to.

Now anyone can send an encrypted message with apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. Those programs use something called public key encryption. If you encode a message using a person's public key, they can decode it using their matching private key. The keys aren't physical, of course; they're actually huge numbers generated by very complicated mathematical equations.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEIL (RESERVIST, US MARINE CORPS): Think of it as two locks around a box.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This is a guy named Neil (ph), and we're not using his last name for reasons that will become clear in a minute.

NEIL: I can give a lock and a key out publicly and say anyone can lock this lock with my public key, and then I can come on the backside of that same lock and open it with my private key. And that ensures that I can - am the only one that can open it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Your private key would be almost like a master key?

NEIL: A master key to messages intended for me.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You can't just intercept them. You have to go to the accounts themselves where the messages began. Or alternatively, you steal those private keys so you can read them. Encrypted messaging is common practice now. WhatsApp alone has over a billion active users in over 180 countries. And Telegram, the app ISIS preferred, it's been very popular with pro-democracy protesters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3 (REPORTER): Protests are still raging in Hong Kong nine weeks after an extradition bill was introduced. That bill...

TEMPLE-RASTON: According to App Annie, a mobile analytics firm that tracks downloads, Telegram was the most downloaded app in Hong Kong this summer. And that's likely because of its strong encryption. We're talking about all this now because these were the kinds of apps ISIS was using to communicate secretly four or five years ago, which says something about just how tech-savvy the group was. Its members were completely comfortable in cyberspace - in a lot of ways, more comfortable than Cybercom was. And that made leaders there start to rethink what a cyberattack really entailed. It didn't have to be so complicated. It could even be a hacker standby.

CARDON: The most common way that you read about that we are all subject to...

TEMPLE-RASTON: That we can talk about.

CARDON: ...Well, is - is phishing, right? Phishing is still very, very effective.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Phishing, those emails you're not supposed to open but sometimes you do anyway. That's General Ed Cardon again. And when he was organizing the fight against ISIS, the people making decisions at Cybercom were in their 40s and 50s. iPhones were new to them. They didn't grow up with social media. The people running ISIS' cyber operations were in their early 20s or 30s. That hacker who was killed by a drone in Raqqa? He was a well-known hacktivist in the U.K. long before he'd ever heard of the Islamic State. In fact, he was kind of famous. He and his friends were part of something called TeaMp0isoN...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4 (REPORTER): TeaMp0isoN, an anarchist hacktivist group began by...

TEMPLE-RASTON: ...Computer-savvy teenagers whose specialty was doing high-visibility hacks. Among other things, they rather famously launched a denial of service attack against the U.K.'s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: And by jamming the U.K.'s counterterrorist hotline with hundreds of computer-generated calls...

TEMPLE-RASTON: They cracked into accounts at 10 Downing Street and posted personal information from Prime Minister Tony Blair's address book. They broke into Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds. TeaMp0isoN seemed to be everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

LYRICIST JINN (MUSICAL ARTIST): (Rapping) I linked with PoisAnoN to try and get the message across. We let them poison us, and now we getting memory loss.

TEMPLE-RASTON: There was even a rap song about them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG) LYRICIST JINN: (Rapping) I'm getting tired of the system, trying to break out 'cause all my life I've been a victim in this place howl (ph).

TEMPLE-RASTON: So you had young hip-hackers like TriCk working for ISIS, and those were the people Cybercom had to learn to fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYRICIST JINN SONG)

STEVE DONALD (US NAVAL RESERVE OFFICER/TECHNICAL DIRECTOR, DEPUTY CHIEF TECHNOLOGY OFFICER, US ARMY CYBER COMMAND): So I'm Steve Donald. I'm a United States Naval officer. I specialize in cryptologic and cyber operations.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Captain Steve Donald is a reservist. And when he's not in uniform, he's launching cybersecurity startups. And he's part of the story because in the spring of 2016, a phone call from the head of his reserve unit changed everything.

DONALD: And he said, Steve, I - I need you to - I need you to come in. I said, well, I'm not in uniform. It doesn't matter. If you have - if you have a badge, come on in.

I can't believe I can actually say this, but they were building a task force to conduct offensive cyber operations against ISIS.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He can't believe he can say that because until now, details about the task force were classified.

DONALD: And I was like, oh, muck yeah. I'm not a guy who typically yells expletives, but that day I think I did.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Donald was asked to pull together a team for something called Task Force ARES.

DONALD: In "Ocean's Eleven" parlance - right? - you know, I'm not sure I'm terribly comfortable saying that I'm the Brad Pitt guy. But...

TEMPLE-RASTON: But he was the Brad Pitt guy - Brad Pitt in "Ocean's Eleven." George Clooney plays Danny Ocean. Pitt plays his aide-de-camp.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OCEAN'S ELEVEN")

GEORGE CLOONEY (ACTOR): (As Danny Ocean) It's never been done before.

BRAD PITT (ACTOR): (As Rusty Ryan) You want to knock over a casino. Three casinos?

TEMPLE-RASTON: And to do the job, Pitt and Clooney had to find people with very specific expertise - pickpockets, bagmen, explosives guys. You get the idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OCEAN'S ELEVEN")

PITT: (As Rusty Ryan) You'd need at least a dozen guys doing a combination of cons.

CLOONEY: (As Danny Ocean) Ten ought to do it, don't you think?

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's kind of how Task Force ARES came together. Steve Donald had to find a team of specialists to do something that had never been done before - hack into a terrorist organization's media operation and bring it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OCEAN'S ELEVEN")

PITT: (As Rusty Ryan) All right. Who's in?

DONALD: The vast majority of forces flowed in from joint force's headquarters.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's an Army cyber operation in Georgia. Donald brought in experts in counterterrorism who understood ISIS and had watched it evolve from a ragtag team of Iraqi Islamists to something bigger. There were operators, the people who would be at the keyboards finding key servers in ISIS' network and disabling them. He found experts in digital forensics, who knew every twist and turn of computer operating systems.

DONALD: They can say this is good, this is bad, this is where the files are located that we're interested in.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Files that contain things like those encryption keys we talked about earlier.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OCEAN'S ELEVEN")

CLOONEY: (As Danny Ocean) Who else is on the list?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Analysts, malware experts, behavioralists - people who had spent years studying the smallest habits of key ISIS players - and they all came together with one goal.

DONALD: Supporting the defeat of ISIS - right? - deny, degrade, disrupt, and manipulate ISIS' info space.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Deny, degrade and disrupt - which is harder than it sounds because ISIS used encryption and remote servers. It was global, and its followers understood social media and how to abuse it. They knew how to set up dummy accounts, and they had pretty good operational security. So from a technology standpoint, it was hard enough. But to be successful, they needed to exploit a psychological component, as well.

NEIL: This cyber environment involves people. It involves their habits, the way that they operate, the way that they name their accounts...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Neil, again.

NEIL: ...When they come in during the day, when they leave, what types of apps they have on their phone. Do they click everything that comes into their inbox, or are they very tight and, you know, restrictive in what they use? All of those pieces are what we look at, not just the code.

TEMPLE-RASTON: What we look at, he said. Neil has asked us to only use his first name to protect his identity because the Task Force ARES' mission against ISIS, something they called Operation Glowing Symphony, it was largely his idea.

NEIL: I was the lead planner as well as the mission commander. I was the one that said go.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Coming up, we go behind the scenes of Operation Glowing Symphony. This is I'LL BE SEEING YOU, a four-part series about the technologies that watch us, from NPR. I'm Dina Temple-Raston. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TEMPLE-RASTON: This is I'LL BE SEEING YOU, a four-part series about the technologies that watch us, from NPR. I'm Dina Temple-Raston. On the show today, a classified offensive cyber mission called Operation Glowing Symphony. This is the first time details of this mission have been revealed publicly by the people who lived it.

NEIL: We'll just go with first names, so you can just call me Neil.

TEMPLE-RASTON: What's your call sign?

NEIL: My call sign is Shadow Recon. That's the hacker handle that I use.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Neil is a Marine reservist in his 30s. And we're only using his first name because he wasn't just the one who said go to start Operation Glowing Symphony, it was his idea.

NEIL: So we were down in the basement at NSA, and we had an epiphany of how this...

TEMPLE-RASTON: The epiphany was how ISIS distributed its propaganda. It turns out, they weren't as careful as they could have been. They did what all hackers do; they took shortcuts. They got a little lazy. Nearly all their propaganda was passing through, to use a geeky computer term, the same 10 nodes.

NEIL: Every account, every IP, every domain, every...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Think of a node as a kind of hub. You may be creating content on the laptop on your desk, but when you send it to someone else or to the outside world, you're sending it through this hub. If the node or hub is attacked, then your content can't go out. And if someone is sitting inside the node without you knowing about it, they can see and control everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TEMPLE-RASTON: This was Neil's epiphany. He ran into the leadership's office, grabbed a magic marker and started drawing crazy circles and lines on a whiteboard.

NEIL: Pointing everywhere and saying, it's all connected. These are the key points. Let's go. I felt like I was in "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia," when he's doing the mystery investigation for Pepe Silvia - pictures on the wall and red yarn everywhere - and nobody was understanding me.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But as Neil kept explaining and drawing, this kind of bicycle tire thing started to emerge.

NEIL: Bicycle tire with spokes, all of the things that were tied to that one node. And then there was another one. I said, everything's tied to these three language websites.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And as what he was saying started to sink in, everything shifted.

NEIL: We could take those over. We were going to win everything. It was a house of cards.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And from those frantic scrawls, a plan to deny, degrade and disrupt.

NEIL: We were focused on completely dismantling it in a systematic fashion so that it was in no way, shape or form recognizable from where it was that day.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And while we don't understand everything they did to crack into ISIS' network, we do know that they used an old standby to start - a phishing email.

CARDON: You know, they clicked on something or they did something that then allowed us to gain control and then start to move.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's General Ed Cardon again. He was Task Force ARES' first commander.

In Task Force ARES, did you have like a - phishing specialty people?

CARDON: We have people that are very good at mapping networks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Mapping a network is about understanding the dynamics of an organization. If you get someone to click on a phishing email, then that gives you an opportunity to explore a little bit. You can root around someone's email account to see who they talk to. Which emails get answered right away? Maybe that's a boss. Which ones just kind of sit there? Maybe that's someone they have a problem with or someone they don't respect. What do the emails say? This is the data collection you used to get with human sources that now is typically done online.

CARDON: The first thing you do when you get in there is you got to get some persistence and spread out.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So if you want to get into ISIS' networks, you might send them a phishing email that they can't help clicking on. And then, with a little exploring, you get yourself an administrator's account.

CARDON: You can operate freely inside the network because you look like a normal IT person.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And ISIS had IT people?

CARDON: Oh, yes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: They had a whole IT department?

CARDON: Yes, they did.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The spring and summer of 2016 was spent preparing for attack. It meant dropping malware on servers or looking for folders that contained things that might be helpful later, like those encryption keys we talked about before. And the deeper ARES got inside ISIS' network, the more it looked like their theory of the 10 nodes was correct. And those nodes weren't just in Syria and Iraq, they were everywhere, on servers around the world, which meant ARES had a new problem. It had to figure out how to target just the part of the server that contained ISIS material and nothing else.

TIM HAUGH (MAJOR GEN, US AIR FORCE): On every server, there might be things from other commercial entities. We are only going to touch that little sliver of the adversary space and not perturb anybody else.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Air Force General Tim Haugh was the first deputy commander of JTF ARES. He worked with General Cardon. And that server issue was one of the problems he had to solve. If ISIS had stored something in the cloud or in a server sitting in, say, Germany, ARES had to show that it could attack the ISIS material and leave everything else on the server unscathed. And they spent months launching small missions that showed it could be done. Then one day, General Haugh turned to a young Marine and asked out loud what everybody was thinking.

HAUGH: How big can we go? And he said, sir, we can do global. I said, that's it. Write it down. We're going to take it to General Cardon. So - so that officer really set the stage.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And that aggressive Marine - you may have guessed - it was Neil. He began peppering the leadership with ideas. He talked to them not just about hacking one person or ISIS in Syria and Iraq but how to take down the media operation's entire global network.

NEIL: That's how these attacks work. They start very simple, and they become more complex.

CARDON: Actually, a lot of them come up that way. Like, we could do this.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's General Cardon again.

CARDON: Somebody says, well, we could gain access and do this to the files. Really? You can do that? Oh, yeah. Would anyone notice? Well, maybe. But the chances are low. It's like, that's interesting. Put that on the list.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And there's something else going on here that's important. Neil was briefing general officers directly. That was a purposeful, organizational decision that made Task Force ARES different. Instead of a top-down traditional military hierarchy, ARES was built around trust, access, the competition of ideas and a willingness to take risks. It was organized so people like Neil wouldn't get buried. In a way, that was a revolution, too.

So that's how Glowing Symphony became a global offensive cyber mission. And at the time, in 2016, that was a big deal. Remember; back then, offensive cyber operations meant doing the kind of thing North Korea was doing in 2014, when it hacked into Sony Pictures, or what the Iranians did two years earlier when they fried all the hard drives at Saudi Aramco, the state oil company. So the thought of the U.S. going on the offensive in that way - for a lot of people, it was scary. General Haugh again.

HAUGH: When we think about how we all operate every day in the digital environment, we don't think a lot about the architecture that's behind it. It took a lot of explanation at all levels.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In other words, a lot of people don't know how the Internet works, just that it does. And Haugh had to convince members of Congress and leaders at the Defense Department that Task Force ARES wasn't going to break the Internet. So there was a team - Joint Task Force ARES. There was a plan - Operation Glowing Symphony. There were briefings to secure approvals, right up to the president. And then, finally, a go.

NEIL: The day of the operation was a very long day - coordination, final rehearsals, everybody wanted to be briefed. And then they also wanted to look me in the eye and say, are you sure this is going to work? And every time, I had to say, yes, no matter what I thought.

TEMPLE-RASTON: They'd organized four separate teams at workstations set up like carols. Sergeants at the keyboard, sitting next to intelligence people, sitting next to linguists. Each station had four flat screen computer monitors on adjustable arms. And the operators sat in those huge chairs you see Internet gamers settle into before a long night. The room was packed.

NEIL: I felt like there were over 80 people in the room between the teams and then everybody lining the back wall that wanted to watch.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Neil was standing in a small, elevated bay at the back, from which he could see all the screens in front of him. And there weren't just glowing numbers or lines of code, he could see log-in screens - actual ISIS log-in screens - each carefully preselected and put on a target list that was so long it was on a 3 foot by 7 foot piece of paper hung on the wall.

HAUGH: It was almost like a very large bingo card.

TEMPLE-RASTON: General Haugh said there were numbers on that bingo card that corresponded with specific targets. Number five may have been one of the editors of the media operation, and it included all the accounts and IP addresses associated with him. Number 12 might have been the group's graphic designer. As they slept, the ISIS members had no idea that, half a world away, a room full of military cyber operators were about to take over their accounts and crash them.

What follows is a pretty good approximation of what our reporting says happened that first night. It's based on interviews with half a dozen people who were there. Neil ordered the teams to start the operation.

NEIL: Fire.

TEMPLE-RASTON: After months of looking at static webpages and picking their way through ISIS networks, the task force started logging in as the enemy. They deleted files, changed passwords - click here, a digital forensic expert would say. We're in, the operator would respond. And then...

NEIL: There was like six minutes where nothing was really happening because the Internet was a little slow.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, he just said the Internet was a little slow.

NEIL: And then, you know, minute seven, eight, nine, 10, it started to flow in and I - you know, my heart started beating again.

TEMPLE-RASTON: They began moving through the ISIS networks they had mapped for months. It was like watching a raid team clearing a house, except it was all online. And then - an unexpected hiccup.

NEIL: We get prompted a security question.

TEMPLE-RASTON: A security question - you've seen them before. What's the name of the street you grew up on? What's the first name of your best friend from childhood? The room quieted down.

NEIL: And we're stuck dead in our tracks. What is the name of your pet? How could the team possibly know that? We all looked to each other and we're like, what can we do? There's no way we're going to get in. This is going to stop the 20 or 30 targets after this. And one of our best analysts stands up and he goes, sir, one-two-five-seven. And we're like, what? One-two-five-seven. We're like, how do you know that? I've been looking at this guy for a year. He does it for everything. We're like, all right. Your favorite pet - one-two-five-seven. Boom. We're in.

TEMPLE-RASTON: After that, momentum started to build. One team would be taking screenshots to gather intelligence for later. Another would be logging ISIS videographers out of their own accounts. Reset successful, the screen would say - folder directory deleted. The screens they were seeing at the NSA campus were the same ones someone in Syria might have been looking at in real time - that is, until someone in Syria hit refresh. Once they did that, they'd see 404 error - destination unreadable. Target five is done, someone would yell, and someone else would walk across the room and cross the number off the big target sheet on the wall.

NEIL: We're crossing names off the list. We're crossing accounts off the list. We're crossing IPs off the list.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Every time a number went down, they would yell one word.

NEIL: Jackpot.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Neil gave us an idea of how it went.

NEIL: They were running back and forth, on scratch pieces of yellow paper - the number five - five, jackpot - or a username that they had taken control of - 44, jackpot. And then we'd draw the line out. And I had stacks of paper coming up on the corner of my desk - 18, three, number six - jackpot, jackpot, jackpot, jackpot. I knew in about the first 15 minutes that we were on pace to accomplish exactly what we needed to accomplish.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Once they'd taken over the 10 nodes and they blocked key people out of their accounts, they just kept chewing your way through the target list.

NEIL: We spent the next five or six hours just shooting fish in a barrel. We had been waiting a long time to do that, and we had seen a lot of bad things happen. And we were happy to see them go away.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And while nothing was ever going to stop random ISIS fighters from grabbing laptops and setting up new networks, there were some indications of success. Active servers were down, key accounts locked, files erased. And there were other small victories. Dabiq, the popular ISIS online magazine we mentioned before - it started missing deadlines.

NEIL: These magazines had been coming out at a regular basis - like, every 28 to 30 days. And after Glowing Symphony, we saw variance. I think it was 36 days, which was the longest time between Dabiqs that ever happened.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Why that happened is unclear. Was it because folders had been deleted and servers were down? Or because ISIS was under pressure on the ground, losing more and more territory in Syria and Iraq? It was impossible to tell, but the delays were eating away at the magazine's following. Dabiq eventually folded.

NEIL: All these delays made it so they weren't as an effective media organization.

TEMPLE-RASTON: For ISIS members, there was no ambiguity about whether they'd been attacked. It was clear. They couldn't get into accounts, couldn't use servers, lost key files. And while these insider details about how ARES hacked ISIS are new, the tools they used to do so - they are exactly the kind of thing nation-state hackers typically use. It's how the Iranians hacked into the Sands Casino in 2014. It's how the Russians got into election systems in the Midwest. And now it was how Cyber Com and the NSA were fighting ISIS. They started looking for new ways to keep the mission going - for new ways to deny, degrade and disrupt the enemy.

JENNIFER BUCKNER (BRIGADIER GENERAL, US ARMY): I'm Brigadier General Jennifer Buckner. I go by Jen. I'm an Army officer.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Buckner was one of the people who took the reins of Task Force ARES after Glowing Symphony had started. And after that first night, the mission shifted into a second phase. To keep pressure on ISIS, Operation Glowing Symphony began to revolve around five lines of effort. In addition to media targets, ARES wanted to make it hard for ISIS to operate on the Internet more generally. They wanted to help the forces on the ground that were pushing ISIS out of Syria and Iraq and make it harder for ISIS to raise money and attract recruits. They also started partnering more. They had people from State and DHS and Treasury actually working with the task force, and they deployed members of ARES to other countries. And because the team was based at the NSA campus at Fort Meade, getting reinforcements to do those things often just required a walk down the hall.

BUCKNER: There was a lot of junior talent that we contributed to this. We pulled whoever knew - we thought could do the job and knew the mission.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Best geek.

BUCKNER: Absolutely, best geek.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And after the first night of crossing targets off that bingo card, the mission continued, though in a more creative way. Joint Task Force ARES operators started making all those things that drive you crazy about today's technology - slow downloads, dropped connections, access denied, program glitches - they made them start happening to ISIS fighters.

BUCKNER: Some of these are not sophisticated effects, but they don't need to be. The idea that, yesterday, I could get into my Instagram account and today I can't is confusing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: If this sounds like something you've experienced, that's exactly the point.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEYBOARD KEYS CLICKING)

TEMPLE-RASTON: If you can't get into an email account, what do you do? You think, maybe I mistyped the log-in or password, so you put it in again - still doesn't work. Then you type it in more deliberately. And every time you type it, press enter and are denied, you get a little more frustrated.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPUTER BEEPING)

TEMPLE-RASTON: If you're at work, you call the IT department, and you explain the issue. And then they ask you if you're sure you typed in your log-in and password correctly. It's enough to drive you nuts. It would never occur to you or to me or ISIS that this might be part of a cyberattack.

BUCKNER: It just looks like I messed something up or something's wrong with the platform.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's what the follow-on phases of Operation Glowing Symphony were all about; that psychological component - eroding morale. One member of ISIS would stay up all night editing a film, and then he'd ask a fellow ISIS member to upload it. But operators with Glowing Symphony would make it so it didn't quite land at its destination. The ISIS member who stayed up all night starts asking the other ISIS member why he didn't do what he'd asked him to do. He gets angry, and so on.

BUCKNER: We had to understand, how did all of that work? And so what is the best way to cause confusion online?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Let's drain their cellphone batteries or insert photographs into videos that aren't supposed to be there. Task Force ARES would watch, react and adjust their plans. They'd change passwords, delete content, shut people out of their accounts; all in a way that made it look like it was just run-of-the-mill IT problems.

CARDON: Pinwheels of death - the network's working really slow. People get frustrated.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's General Ed Cardon again. And he says, after more than two years on the mission, the operators had developed a kind of organizational memory.

CARDON: This is built through repetition - when you do a lot - is you just sort of know what that person's going to do.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Operation Glowing Symphony still isn't over. Task Force ARES, now led by General Matthew Glavy, is still sitting in ISIS networks - still driving them crazy. This is I'LL BE SEEING YOU from NPR. When we come back, something we haven't mentioned - the very dark side of offensive cyber.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: This is not anything that was clean or virtual, it was something that had very lethal impacts.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And a rare, exclusive interview - NSA Director General Paul Nakasone. I'm Dina Temple-Raston. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TEMPLE-RASTON: This is I'LL BE SEEING YOU from NPR, a four-part series about the technologies that watch us. And today's show is about offensive cyberattacks. Specifically, we're talking about a classified mission - a mission in which the U.S. military hacked one of the most dangerous and tech-savvy terrorist organizations in the world. The military cyber arm, something called U.S. Cyber Command, and the NSA put together a special unit to knock ISIS off the Internet. They called it Joint Task Force Ares, and in the fall of 2016, something called Operation Glowing Symphony began. And it's still going on today.

MATTHEW GLAVY (US GENERAL, TASK FORCE ARES COMMANDER): ISIS came in using the information domain, using Samsung phones with some HD graphics, to use information warfare in a way that's never been used before.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's General Matthew Glavy. He's the current commander of Task Force Ares.

GLAVY: Atrocious, heinous, dark side - but nonetheless, they used information warfare probably better than anybody else ever has.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Glavy said the five lines of effort on which Ares focused three years ago are still there. Ares still has its thumb on ISIS' media operations. The group is still having a lot of trouble operating freely on the web. Ground forces have been successful in driving them out of most of Syria and Iraq, but there are still pockets where ISIS has a presence. And they have moved to other countries like Libya, and Mali, and even the Philippines.

Ares is still sitting on ISIS to prevent it from raising money and attracting recruits. Those original so-called lines of effort still apply, but they've evolved.

GLAVY: They've morphed a little bit. But let's face it, we got to be ever so diligent and vigilant about the media piece. And we cannot have - for them to gain the momentum that we saw in the past. So we - we've - we have to learn that lesson.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Remember that Hellfire missile that came roaring out of the Syrian sky to kill the ISIS hacker? His real name was Junaid Hussain, and he was just 21 years old when he died in Syria - a hacker deemed so dangerous the American military decided to kill him.

Lorraine Murphy is a digital journalist who writes about technology and hacktivism, and she knew Hussain when he was just a teenager with a computer and a cause. She says ISIS must have seen him coming.

LORRAINE MURPHY (DIGITAL JOURNALIST): He emerged at the right time. He was in the right place. He had all of the ingredients. He had connections. He had a significant social media following.

TEMPLE-RASTON: By August 2014, he had traveled to Syria and began to call himself Abu Hussain al-Britani, and he joined their Cyber Caliphate.

MURPHY: He was fluent in all of the things that fundamentalists tend not to be fluent in, like technology, like social media. He could be charming. He could be a gifted propagandist so I mean, they couldn't have invented a more perfect head of hacking for ISIS.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You can sit at home and play "Call Of Duty," one of his most famous tweets from Syria read, or you can come here and respond to the real call of duty. The choice is yours.

He also rather famously hacked into U.S. Central Command's Twitter account and released a list of U.S. military personnel with names and addresses, and then called on ISIS members to kill them. It's not surprising that Cyber Command demanded a response.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5 (REPORTER): U.S. spy drones followed and tracked notorious British-born ISIS hacker Junaid Hussain for days in the middle of heavily...

ROSENBACH: And I know to some NPR listeners this will sound like a bitter pill.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, former Defense Department official Eric Rosenbach.

ROSENBACH: If there are a very small number of individuals in a country who know how to build a nuclear weapon and you try to think about ways to prevent those people from accomplishing their mission, that can be very effective - same thing in cyberspace. When you think about Junaid Hussain or others, we thought about ways to neuter his cybercapability to prevent them from getting online. It is really important to remember this is a war.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Officials familiar with his case said that he double-clicked on a phishing email from Cybercom that allowed them to track his phone, to follow him, and eventually kill him at that gas station.

ROSENBACH: For cyber problems, you can't just use cyber tools. When it's in a warzone, using kinetic physical force to address that issue - which is eventually what it came down to in that case.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Even if you think Hussain's work with ISIS made him a legitimate target for attack, the problem is that this kind of thing doesn't stop there. The U.S. isn't the only country using offensive cyber this way. Remember the much more alarming case of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6 (REPORTER): Turkish officials have audio and video recordings of the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Arabian...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7 (REPORTER): He went to the consulate to obtain paperwork to marry his fiancee and was never seen again.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He was brutally murdered in a Saudi embassy late last year, and his body was never recovered. Offensive cyber appears to have played a key role in his death, too. Just as Cybercom followed Junaid Hussain by putting something on his phone, that seems to have happened in Khashoggi's case as well.

RON DEIBERT (DIRECTOR, CITIZEN LAB): So when we - we talk about offensive cyber operations, I think it's important to understand that it doesn't always come in one flavor.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Ron Deibert is the director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. The Citizen Lab does news-breaking research on digital security and human rights. Six years ago, it rather famously discovered that China had been hacking into the Dalai Lama's computer networks. And last year, it looked into another case of state-sponsored offensive cyber.

DEIBERT: If you look at the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, I would say that a lot of the preparation for that and the lead up to it had to do with Saudi Arabia using offensive cyber weapons.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Deibert's researchers dug into the case and they found offensive cyber tools tracking the journalist and his inner circle. Citizen Lab says it's figured out a way to detect if a phone has been targeted by programs that can infiltrate encrypted phones and apps. And they found just such a program in this case. A Saudi dissident who is an associate of Khashoggi's filed a lawsuit that says he found tracking spyware on his phone. He said it allowed the Saudis to secretly listen to his calls, read his messages and track his Internet history. Allegedly, it could also turn on the phone's microphone and camera. And the Saudi case isn't an outlier. In Mexico alone, Citizen Lab found 27 cases of this kind of offensive cybertool targeting political rivals, reporters and civil rights lawyers.

DEIBERT: I think there's a control problem here.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Ron Deibert again.

DEIBERT: You really create conditions for an escalation of an arms race in cyberspace that really could come back to haunt the United States in the long run.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Deibert says even if the United States is being careful in its use of offensive cyber, the mere fact that America is using it gives license to others to do the same.

DEIBERT: There is a demonstration effect, and the equipment, the software, the methods, the capabilities proliferate.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Large cyber operations like Glowing Symphony worry Deibert, too. He says offensive cyber is blurring the lines between military and civilian targets. Remember those servers with ISIS material outside of Syria and Iraq? Well, they had civilian material on them as well.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: We're effectively talking about military operations that are in our common communications infrastructure. These type of operations are - are effectively maneuvering through what is essentially a public sphere on a global level.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It's like using a missile in a regular city.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Exactly.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Last August, President Trump signed an order that allows the secretary of Defense to conduct cyber operations more freely. Now they can launch an attack without necessarily needing presidential approval. It was meant to replace an Obama-era order known as Presidential Policy Directive 20, which set out a strict framework to keep cyber operations in check. The new directive, which has not been publicly released, is supposed to remove bureaucratic obstacles that the Defense Department thought were preventing them from fighting off cyberthreats fast enough. The subtle uses of cyber, hacks like phase two of Operation Glowing Symphony, raise other questions. What if, instead of the pinwheel of death or inserting photographs, enemies hacked into health records and changed just one thing, like, say, blood type? Imagine the damage that could cause.

DEIBERT: I think there's always been a recognition of the value of offensive capabilities in cyberspace from a U.S. perspective.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Ron Deibert again.

DEIBERT: There may have been some reticence to deploy these widely, perhaps for legal reasons or the precedent that they set for other countries and for potential arms race in cyberspace, but those concerns seem to have lessened. And now with discussions of persistent engagement, what we're talking about is something that is more active.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Persistent engagement and defend forward - these terms come from NSA director and Cybercom Commander General Paul Nakasone, and he talked about them when he gave NPR a rare exclusive interview a few months ago at the NSA campus at Fort Meade.

PAUL NAKASONE (COMMANDER GENERAL, CYBERCOM): Defend forward is part of the DOD cyber strategy that talks about acting outside our borders to ensure that we maintain contact with our adversaries in cyberspace.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In other words, you don't want to wait to be attacked in cyberspace. You do things that allow you to hack back if there's an attack in the future, and that could be deploying a small team in another country that asks for help.

NAKASONE: That can be hunting on a network to look for malware, or it could be, as we did in Operation Glowing Symphony, the idea of being able to impact infrastructure worldwide.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Those targeted attacks that let them take down ISIS material on a server without affecting anyone else - the U.S. used to focus on defending its networks. Now it seems to be leaning more on offensive capabilities. You can draw a straight line from Task Force ARES to a new unit the NSA and Cyber Command have just started discussing publicly - something called the Russia Small Group. Just as ARES focused on ISIS, the Russia Small Group is organizing around countering Russian cyberattacks. We've known for some time that Russia has been trying to plant malware in key infrastructure targets in the U.S. The intelligence community has made clear that Russia used social media to meddle in the 2016 elections, and they expect that to continue in the 2020 elections as well. General Nakasone talked about this during our interview at the NSA.

But first, there were some funny things about that interview. Because the National Security Agency is one of the most secretive organizations in the world, all the sound you hear from inside the NSA - it is from inside the building but they wouldn't let us record it for ourselves. They recorded it and then sent it to us in a file called Unclassified Sounds of The NSA. Think of it as a kind of NSA greatest hits. We heard all these things when we were there, of course, but we couldn't get them on tape. We were permitted to record General Nakasone, however. We sat down at a teak conference table that seats several dozen, and there's a kind of backbencher row of seats like in a movie theater.

NAKASONE: A little bit of a big room but I thought it would be easier than probably doing it in my office, so...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Army General Paul Nakasone has two jobs. He's the director of the nation's largest spy agency, the NSA. And he also leads U.S. Cyber Command, the military's top cyber arm. Whenever you hear about American cyberattacks, the people behind them are at Cybercom. The ones you don't hear about probably came out of the NSA. Before becoming NSA director last year, Nakasone was the head of the Army's Cyber Command, and he was in charge of Joint Task Force ARES when the cyber mission against ISIS, Operation Glowing Symphony, first started. And while he wasn't convinced the mission was a success in the first 15 minutes like Neil was, he said it was clear the mission was working from very early on.

NAKASONE: Within the first 60 minutes of go, I knew we were having success.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And you saw things crumble.

NAKASONE: We would see the targets start to come down. It's hard to describe, but you can just sense it from being in the atmosphere that the operators, they know they're doing really well. And they're not saying that, but you're there and you know it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Nakasone said that before Ares, the fight against ISIS in cyberspace was episodic. Now it's continuous.

NAKASONE: We were going to make sure that any time ISIS was going to raise money or communicate - we were going to be there.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And the fact that Cybercom and Task Force Ares are there has meant that ISIS has had to change the way they operate. They aren't as strong in cyberspace as they were. They're still there but not in the same way.

NAKASONE: We were seeing an adversary that was able to leverage cyber to raise a tremendous amount of money, to proselytize. And we were seeing a series of videos and posts and media products that were high-end. We haven't seen that recently.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And, of course, that's good.

NAKASONE: And that's one of the things that we will continue to do as ISIS shows their head or shows an ability to act. We're going to be right there.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Back in June, The New York Times reported that the U.S. had cracked into Russia's electrical power grid and had planted malware there, which...

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8 (REPORTER): Has the potential, presumably, to take them offline.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9 (REPORTER): Multiple security officials confirmed the report.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10 (REPORTER): Cyber Command is gaming out what would happen if Russia attacks key states just as America goes to vote in 2020.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Though Nakasone wouldn't confirm The New York Times story, it isn't hard to see how that would fit into a Russia small groups operation if it's modeled on Ares. The assumption has always been that Russia is in American networks in the event of a conflict with the U.S. in the future. Nakasone suggested that the U.S. has been doing the same, not just a response to what Russia is trying to do now but what it might attempt to do later.

Nakasone said the first thing he did when he became NSA director in the spring of 2018 was to review what the Russians had done in the runup to the U.S. presidential elections. He wanted Cybercom to learn from it, to reverse engineer it and see how it works.

NAKASONE: What does an adversary do? How do they try to create influence? It provided us a very, very good roadmap of what they might do in the future.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Nakasone said the American people shouldn't worry about the 2020 elections because Cybercom is prepared to prevent the Russians from repeating what they did in 2016.

NAKASONE: I think it's important for the American public to understand that, as with any domain - air, land, sea or space - cyberspace is the same way. Our nation has a force. We are going to make sure that we're poised, trained and ready to act when authorized.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Even saying that much is new. Remember - offensive cyber not so long ago was something they didn't talk about, and now, all of a sudden, they seem to be. So why is General Nakasone talking about this now?

DEIBERT: What's happening here is part of a deterrent justification.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Ron Deibert from the Citizen Lab again.

DEIBERT: You can't have cyber operations meaningly (ph) deter your adversaries unless they know that you have these capabilities and they understand what you can do with them. But what's not probably being discussed or appreciated is the extent to which there is a systemic effect of the use of these operations. Other countries take notice. Other actors take notice.

TEMPLE-RASTON: At the end of Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," there was an iconic scene in which Peter Sellers talks about the doomsday bomb as the ultimate deterrent. But it only works as a deterrent if people know it exists.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB")

PETER SELLERS (ACTOR): (As Dr. Strangelove) Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And they come to the conclusion - if you don't tell anybody about it, what good is it?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB")

SELLERS: (As Dr. Strangelove) The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret.

TEMPLE-RASTON: If you keep it a secret - you could say the same thing about American offensive cyber operations. They've been so stealthy for so long, maybe people don't realize the U.S. has them.

We all hear about Russia's influence campaigns. The Chinese have been stealing intellectual property. Iranian hackers have been trolling around in our infrastructure. But we rarely hear much about the American response. This may be an effort to try to change that. The irony is that offensive cyber's richest target is us. Ron Deibert again.

DEIBERT: The United States is a country most highly dependent on these technologies and arguably the most vulnerable to these sorts of attacks. I think there should be far more attention devoted to thinking about proper systems and security to defense.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Doing that, of course, isn't so easy, either.

This is I'LL BE SEEING YOU from NPR. Next time - an old-fashioned spy story with a high-tech twist.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I just said, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see what's going on here because a god**** Soviet spy.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The show was written and hosted by me, Dina Temple-Raston. Our producer is Adelina Lancianese, and she scored the show, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Special thanks to Eric Mennel for his field production, NPR Investigations, the Story Lab and Josephine Wolff at Tufts University. If you missed one of our previous shows, just go to npr.org/illbeseeingyou or find us on NPR One. I'm Dina Temple-Raston, and I'LL BE SEEING YOU.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEIL: My friend texted me, and he said, so I hear you're doing the interview. It's General Nakasone, General Haugh, General Cardon and Neil.

TEMPLE-RASTON: (Laughter).

NEIL: I'm a recon Marine as well, so if you get compromised, you have to buy everybody a case of beer.

TEMPLE-RASTON: I think you're going to be buying a lot of beer.

NEIL: Yeah. That's OK. That's OK.

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