Cyberspace Crime, War Crime and ISIS

Posted by: Shemmyla Green

April 19, 2015


Cyber Caliphate – ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has been committing large-scale war crimes and crimes against humanity in the areas under its control, in Syria and Iraq. Now this group wants to add hacking to its “rule of terror” portfolio, which includes massacres, beheadings, sexual enslavement and forced pregnancy. Isis has been recruiting hackers for some time now. Some are virtual collaborators from a distance, but others have been recruited to emigrate to Syria,” said JM Berger, co-author of Isis: The State of Terror.

A group by the name of “CyberCaliphate”, Caliphate meaning the political-religious state comprising the Muslim community and the lands and peoples under its dominion, have hacked some of the social media accounts of the US Central Military Command (Centcom), the group Military Spouses of Strength, Newsweek and the website of International Business Times. This group has not been confirmed to be ISIS, but what is clear is that they are supportive of the ISIS agenda. Intelligence expert suspect the Briton hacker, Junaid Hussain was the mastermind behind the “CyberCaliphate” attacks.

Junaid Hussain is a young British man in his twenties, who moved to Syria to assist ISIS in the ramp-up of their hacking efforts. He was jailed in 2012 for hacking the address book of former Prime Minister of the UK, Tony Blair. “Hussain was in charge of recruiting hacker for the Islamic State’s digital terrorism efforts”, analyst Alex Kassirer from Flashpoint Global Partners told Reuters.

With the reputation of ISIS and the threats and disdain they have toward the US, there seems to be a looming cyberspace and/or ground war. In the event of a cyberspace war, will the evaluation of the cyber warfare result in war crimes?

Cyberspace Crimes

Cyber warfare involves the actions by a nation-state or international organization to attack and attempt to damage another nation’s computers or information networks through, for example, computer viruses or denial-of-service attacks. I believe this definition is incomplete when it comes to cyber crimes, that could result in war crimes. Information warfare is defined more thoroughly as it refers to:

Attacks on ‘sensitive military and critical infrastructure assets, and to battlefield communication and satellite intelligence’, i.e. standard military targets, it does not cover act against low-security civilian infrastructure, which is iWar (internet war). Electronic Warfare is not Cyber-Warfare, this is electromagnetic spectrum weapons. Nor does Network-Centric Warfare apply, this is several military arms working in conjunction with each other. Stealing of secrets and intelligence is spying.

Related attack would be turning sensors off at hydroelectric plant, like in Shushenskaya and preventing access to banks, governments and in infrastructure, as in Estonia.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL)

In IHL, “attack” refers to a specific category of military operations. Article 49(1) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions defines “attacks” as “acts of violence against the adversary, whether in offence or in defense.” This only achieves relevance once an “armed conflict” is in progress. Like “attack”, “armed conflict” is a legal term of art referring to two types of conflicts:

1) international armed conflicts, which are between States; and

2) non-international armed conflicts, which are conflicts at a certain level of intensity and organization between a State and an organized armed group or between organized armed groups.

Jus (or ius) ad bellum (Latin for right to war) is the title given to the branch of law that defines the legitimate reasons a state may engage in war and focuses on certain criteria that render a war just. Under jus ad bellum, a cyber attack can be considered an armed attack, but this is an analogous situation. If the attack is illegal and more serious than use of force, causing death, injury, damage or destruction, it could indeed start conflicts, be a legitimate response, or countermeasure.

Jus in bello (Latin for law in waging war), by contrast, is the set of laws that come into effect once a war has begun. Its purpose is to regulate how wars are fought, without prejudice to the reasons of how or why they had begun. In jus in bello an “attack” is a combat action created by acts of violence. This signifies a physical force. Since a cyber attack is not a physical force, the outcome of the attack would have to be harmful, physically in nature.

Looking a cyber attacks in a broad legal scope, they could definitely be consider a war crime.

Combating Cyber warfare

The FBI states, “We lead the national effort to investigate high-tech crimes, including cyber-based terrorism, espionage, computer intrusions, and major cyber fraud. To stay in front of current and emerging trends, we gather and share information and intelligence with public and private sector partners worldwide.” When dealing with international cyber conflict and war here are some partnering organizations that are providing resources and remedies:

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – The work of the ICRC is based on the Geneva Conventions of 1949, their Additional Protocols, its Statutes those of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the resolutions of the International Conferences of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. The ICRC is an independent, neutral organization ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and armed violence. It takes action in response to emergencies and promotes respect for international humanitarian law and its implementation in national law.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)NATO’s essential purpose is to safeguard the freedom and security of its members through political and military means.

Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE): Tallinn Manual Process – is a leading effort in international cyber law research and education. In collaboration with distinguished international law scholars and practitioners, the Centre has developed a program consisting of two pillars — a comprehensive research agenda and practitioner-oriented training opportunities.

United Nations (UN) promotes justice and international law across its three pillars of work: international peace and security, economic and social progress and development, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.


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