How Australia's top secret cyber agency helped defeat Islamic State

A Kurdish Peshmerga soldier mans an observation post on the frontline with ISIS November 5, 2015 near Telskuf in northern Iraq. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The demise of Islamic State was hastened by the quick fingers of Australian cybersecurity professionals.

In a rare public address, the head of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) Mike Burgess declassified details about the operation against so-called Islamic State, known as Daesh, for the Australian public.

“Our offensive cyber operators were at their keyboards in Australia, firing highly targeted bits and bytes into cyberspace. Daesh communications were degraded within seconds,” Burgess told a Lowy Institute event in Sydney yesterday.

“Terrorists were in disarray and driven from their position — in part because of the young men and women at their keyboards some 11,000 kilometres or so away,” he said.

“Our effects were generated in support of and in coordination with ground manoeuvres. This operation marked a milestone for both Australia and our Coalition partners. It was the first time that an offensive cyber operation had been conducted so closely synchronised with movements of military personnel in theatre. And it was highly successful.”

According to US-backed forces, Daesh lost its last piece of territory over the weekend, having once controlled large, while mostly unpopulated, parts of Syria and Iraq.

Australian military operations in Iraq commenced in 2014 to combat Daesh, which was expanded to Syria in 2015 by then-prime minister Tony Abbott. US-backed forces in

Burgess made it clear that operations like this are part of ASD’s work, but only in “very specific circumstances, with a strict legal timeframe”.

As part of his intention to take the ASD out of the shadows, Burgess also tried to combat the way offensive cybersecurity is portrayed in media.

“It’s as far away as you can get from the cliché in the movies. They come from all sorts of backgrounds – everything from computer science to marketing, international relations, the law, linguistics, biology and mathematics to name a few.”

Rather than disabling assets in a target’s with complex cyber-offensive operations, operatives can sometimes take on a false identity to disrupt a target. As was the case Burgess detailed of a man who had been radicalised and was trying to join a terrorist group from a remote location overseas.

“The risks were significant and the stakes were high,” Burgess said.

“If the terrorists didn’t accept the newcomer, they would likely execute him.

“If they did accept him, they would further radicalise him and train him to kill. It was literally a matter of life and death.”

With the help of a linguist, cultural and behavioural experts and a lead operator, the ASD team impersonated another terrorist commander. Burgess said they used deliberate broken english, won over the target’s trust and even convinced him to change his modes and methods of communication to block off other influences.

“Eventually, she (the lead operator) convinced the aspiring terrorist to abandon his plan for jihad and move to another country where our partner agencies could ensure he was no longer a danger to others or himself,” Burgess said.

And why did Burgess decide to share these fascinating insights? He said revealing details like this is part of a broader responsibility to keep the public informed about its powers and the checks on those powers.

“…it is important that ASD is transparent about its role, and the protections that apply to Australian citizens.”

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