We Are Already Behind Enemy Lines: Lessons from the Secretive Online Fight Against the Islamic State
Key Islamic State propagandists removed from the battlefield via missile strike, critical documents and files missing from jihadist web servers, and Islamic State leaders and adherents fighting with each other over issues of orthodoxy: These are just several of the tangible results from U.S. Cyber Command’s operations in its highly classified fight against the Islamic State. While it’s easy to be captivated by the novelty and technical details, this fight has been more than the sum of niche, individual operations against Islamic State affiliates using the internet. It has been a multi-year campaign weaving together operations both in and outside of traditional combat zones. More importantly, the lessons learned from the fight — shifting from exclusively planning and exercising for major combat operations with adversaries to competing with them now, exploiting opportunities to operate against the adversary before conventional combat arises, and working in concert with a robust network of domestic and foreign partners — are precisely what is necessary as the United States moves from admiring the problem of great-power competition to finding solutions.
We served with Joint Task Force ARES, a marine-led joint unit under U.S. Cyber Command, as it learned how to persistently engage the Islamic State’s propaganda machine and its fielded forces. This experience taught us that U.S. military forces can conduct and support campaigns against the full breadth of adversaries’ efforts — whether they focus on conventional military operations or not. Not only is this consistent with aspects of the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 efforts and the commandant’s recent emphasis on malign activity below the threshold of armed conflict, but the joint force can also apply what we’ve learned in the fight against the Islamic State to great-power competition. Doing so requires thinking beyond engaging adversary military forces in a decisive battle, to embrace the competition and political processes in which such battles exist. This requires a force that can operate in both combat and gray zones. In traditional combat zones, the present emphasis on building a “more lethal joint force” means focusing on the destruction and neutralization of an adversary’s military forces while ensuring one’s own survivability. While definitions of “gray zone” abound, the common theme is achieving political and strategic objectives while avoiding such combat zones.
In short, we need a force not only prepared to fight tonight in a possible combat zone but also actively engaged and contesting the gray zone in the present. Designing a force that can do both is the vexing problem that many — including Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger — have recently highlighted. We believe the approach refined by task force ARES over several years campaigning against the Islamic State offers solutions applicable across the joint force. As a bonus, these are changes the Marine Corps can experiment with and implement now without waiting for a redesigned force in 2030.
Joint Task Force ARES
Recent articles, interviews, and podcasts provide an unprecedented look into the secretive online fight against the Islamic State (dubbed Operation Glowing Symphony). Still, their focus on technical capabilities obscures the critical aspects of effective gray zone campaigning. When U.S. Cyber Command created the task force in 2016, the Islamic State was winning the information battle in blitzkrieg fashion with cell phones and internet access: demoralizing Iraqi troops, recruiting adherents from afar, and inspiring global jihad. Glowing Symphony was part of the U.S. military’s solution to fight the Islamic State’s global information system. It was a months-long campaign leveraging both physical and informational aspects of military power in close coordination with other joint, interagency, and allied forces. The relentless, combined application of physical and informational power — within and outside the combat zone — reduced the quantity and quality of Islamic State media. While providing support for kinetic strikes and ground maneuvers was important (and is what draws the most attention from conventional military thinkers), it is not the basis of the task force’s lasting success.
Rather, the task force’s success stems from its ability to pursue and maintain contact with multiple elements of the adversary system, including those not directly associated with its fielded forces. Elements of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine spanned the globe: Key personnel directing propaganda efforts were located in the Middle East, but affiliates generating material, distributers spreading glossy products, and servers hosting digital material were dispersed across Europe, Africa, Central and Southeast Asia and beyond. While elements of the propaganda system existed outside official combat zones, they were critical to the Islamic State’s battlefield successes. This ability to compete with the adversary outside combat zones while simultaneously dominating the physical conflict inside combat zones is the posture and operational agility the joint force needs for the steady adversary engagement called for in the National Defense Strategy.
You Can’t Hide from the Gray Zone
Glowing Symphony demonstrates the need and ability for military forces to operate against adversaries both within and outside what is traditionally thought of as combat. While gray zone activities are often seen as a strategy designed to avoid escalation, if incorporated into the overall campaign, they can remain relevant even after escalation. When Marines assumed command of the online fight against the Islamic State in 2018, the U.S.-led coalition was on the cusp of defeating the Islamic State on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria. We recognized continued success required undermining the Islamic State’s growing international network of enablers, supporters, and affiliated groups as its proto-state crumbled. One unit, focused on supporting combat operations and attacking the Islamic State’s sophisticated media system outside the combat zone, provided us an impressive operational advantage we would have missed had we focused exclusively on the area of armed conflict.
Identifying and disrupting the operations of elements of the Islamic State’s enabler networks outside Iraq and Syria — such as their propaganda and logistics support systems — led to better awareness of opportunities to attack Islamic State forces still engaged in direct, traditional combat. The group’s physical defeat was accelerated because the joint task force either helped remove resources that sustained Islamic State combat forces or identified connections between those forces and their supporters that could be used to create internal strife in the organization. Further, this understanding of and engagement with the entire adversary system enables the military to keep apace of and pressure the Islamic State as it shifts efforts across the globe. We can’t think of a more relevant capability for the joint force than to be able to identify, pursue, and attack the most vulnerable elements of state powers wherever they’re located, in a declared combat zone or not.
Operations in the information environment are an obvious place for the joint force to apply this lesson. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act granted the military authorities to conduct operations in the information environment “short of hostilities and … outside of areas of active hostilities.” The information environment provides multiple avenues of approach for the synchronized application of physical and informational military power before, during, and after combat. The task force’s campaign emphasized nontraditional targets within the adversary system, such as networks facilitating propaganda, recruitment, and logistics (yet located far from the combat zone). This is an effective example of the “long view” that the joint force needs to create maneuver space against adversary vulnerabilities, and frustrate targeting and decision-making cycles when conflict ensues.
Campaigning Needs to Start Well Before Combat
At first glance, defining “gray zone” in contrast to “combat zone” might seem like a distraction from increasing lethality and effective deterrence by denial. Our experience is the opposite: Campaigning against the breadth of the adversary system leads to better operational and strategic outcomes. Because our planners and operators are familiar with multiple facets of the adversary, they can spot connections and opportunities to exploit vulnerabilities that otherwise would have been missed. By embracing constant competition in the gray zone, U.S. and partnered forces can impose incremental costs and disruptions before combat begins while enhancing their capability for combat in the physical domain. In other words, our experiences support a more nuanced approach to thinking about deterrence by denial and can also compliment “deterrence by detection” approaches.
Specifically, the fight against the Islamic State online demonstrates how employing gray zone operations can impose costs now, before the outbreak of hostilities. Even more so, these same efforts can simultaneously enhance a force’s combat capability should physical combat ensue, enabling those forces to impose even greater costs during battlefield engagements.
We can extend this logic and approach to the joint force executing a variety of operations before conflict. By expanding the competitive space with great powers through a “fight now” approach, the U.S. military can contest and degrade its adversary’s current gray zone activity, posture its forces to manipulate adversary behavior when combat is required, and be better prepared to fight and win the next conflict.
Link Up with Nontraditional Partners
With a global adversary like the Islamic State, there is only so much the cyber mission force can do on its own. Similarly, the Marine Corps (or even the joint force) cannot be everywhere it’s needed to compete with state powers. And while the U.S. military certainly should not always lead the nation’s efforts in great-power competition, it still can have a critical supporting role. Therefore, effective campaigning — whether as the primary instrument of national power or supporting a broad national approach — requires close collaboration with partners beyond the Department of Defense. Joint forces, particularly naval forces, provide unique placement and access to the operational environment that interagency and foreign partners can leverage to target vulnerable elements of the adversary system. They also come with robust command-and-control capabilities well suited to plan with partners — whether providing information (“tips”) to foreign military forces or law enforcement, recommending targets for economic sanctions, or integrating another element of U.S. national power. The result is true combined “arms” against adversary systems that would be impossible alone. At Joint Task Force ARES, we experience this daily as access within the adversary system is often what an ally or interagency partner needs to employ their authority or capability. Partnerships with select allied units and interagency offices allow us to leverage and coordinate partners’ reach and actions that range from kinetic, to law enforcement, to economic to informational. This network enables the combined efforts of the task force and partners to affect nodes of the adversary system that elude the U.S. military’s reach.
Closely integrating with relevant partners beyond the Defense Department is immediately applicable to the joint force. Partner agencies will be willing, if not eager, for organizations with capable planning capacity to lead the coordination required when operating across the geographic and functional seams that adversaries exploit. By virtue of having a campaign plan with planned operations (versus a strategic plan that provides broad guidance without specifics), the joint task force frequently serves as the de facto hub for coordinating activity and developing combined approaches around these seams. The Department of Defense is uniquely capable of bringing command-and-control capabilities to bear on complex issues that cross geographic regions while working in concert with partners across the interagency apparatus and coalition nations.
Engage in the Gray Zone Now While Redesigning the Force
Time is of the essence. The joint force, and especially the Marine Corps, cannot wait for conflict to emerge before implementing gray zone campaigns. Fighting now offers increases in lethality, expanded strategic options, and extended reach through willing and able partners. How, then, should naval leaders implement the National Defense Strategy, enact Force Design 2030, and “work out effective responses to the challenges of gray zone operations?” The first step is to get more engaged in the gray zone, breaking from the mindset that the U.S. military’s active role is limited to contingency scenarios.
Where should U.S. forces prioritize such initial efforts? Since China is frequently identified as America’s pacing threat, consider countering Chinese hybrid approaches, such as island-building, mobilized “private” fishing vessels, and bullying campaigns against our allies and partners in the South China Sea. Each case requires a focus on frustrating the application of all elements of state power that support those efforts — not just Chinese military forces — and coordinating efforts across multiple agencies that can bring the most viable countering technique to bear. And given the maritime nature of these adversary actions, they are just the kinds of threats for which forward-deployed naval forces, working closely with interagency and coalition elements, are suited to. Even when forces are “just” training and otherwise operating outside of traditional combat scenarios, their placement and access creates an opportunity to support and enable partners.
Practically, the Marine expeditionary unit could remain a forward-deployed force of choice and leverage its regional, and often distributed, placement to engage in such efforts with existing capabilities while remaining outside of conventional conflict. These units also possess capable planning teams and communications systems to coordinate the application of joint, national, and allied assets. Further, as forward-deployed naval forces, they offer access, maneuverability, and survivability that fixed-site installations often lack and can be valuable to interagency partners. Together, this combination allows such naval formations to serve as ideal platforms to work across the seams and boundaries that challenge other military commands and address gray zone problems. Moreover, the ability to leverage naval capabilities is only going to increase as the forthcoming light amphibious ships enter into the fleet, extending the number of platforms well beyond the traditional three-ship amphibious ready group.
Our goal here is not to prescribe the exact solutions for the challenging problems that exist within great-power competition, but suggest the kind of unit that is able to identify, coordinate, implement, refine, and share those solutions. Viable options to confront these challenges will surface through the broadest understanding of the problem, a bias for action before the adversary responds to the approach, and collaboration with partners who will bring their own perspective and capabilities to the table.
Some might disagree with the recommendation for military participation in gray-zone activities now out of concern that such overt involvement may be viewed in Beijing as inherently escalatory. While many types of military operations may be seen as aggressive, we believe information capabilities (including communications strategy) can mitigate escalatory dynamics. In many situations, simply revealing an adversary’s malign activity can impose costs and even include implicit signals about capabilities that may act as a deterrent. An example is the U.S. Cyber Command’s Twitter feed for virus alerts that publishes foreign malware, rendering capabilities that depend on secrecy less effective. Similarly, naval forces could help find and illuminate subversive Chinese activity if such annunciations are deliberately incorporated into a persistent engagement campaign.
As the Marine Corps redesigns itself into a “stand-in force” that is already “behind enemy lines,” it has the opportunity to create cognitive dilemmas in addition to physical targeting problems for adversaries in a crisis. This cognitive effect, however, is only possible in future hostilities if it is developed now through persistent engagement in gray zone campaigns. Think of gray zone campaigning as operational preparation of the environment for the eventual employment of the Marine littoral regiment and extended stand-in forces. To enable this, force designers should ensure combined Marine Corps and Navy component staffs are adequately integrated across geographic combatant commands, and closely linked to the planning and operational capacity Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command can provide. This integration will enable the expeditionary naval maneuver called for in the Commandant’s Planning Guidance to employ cyberspace operations — and operations in the information environment more generally — to their fullest potential against state competitors. While the current joint force geographical construct hinders operations that cross combatant command boundaries, future naval components should be able to coordinate and employ naval informational power across regions. For example, Pacific-based naval forces should be able to discover opportunities along Africa’s coast. We should be comfortable and agile enough to enable them to exploit that opportunity quickly. Succeeding here will require deliberate force-design planning to address headquarters and command-and-control capabilities.
The character of great-power competition ranges from ongoing gray zone perturbations to crises that can unintentionally escalate to potential outright hostilities. This demands a force that can operate effectively across this spectrum. Rather than creating a force in readiness prepared to operate inside actively contested maritime spaces, the United States needs a force that does operate inside actively contested maritime spaces, like the South China Sea, today.
Naval services don’t have the luxury of ceding maneuver space or developing distinct forces that specialize in types of competition. Our experience suggests the same force — applying the lessons we’ve outlined — can effectively fight in the gray zone now while still preparing for potential combat zones. Existing, capable, and forward-deployed naval forces are well-suited to embrace a long-term campaigning approach in concert with key allied and interagency partners. Such near-term efforts will further inform the development of a Marine Corps and joint force able to effectively compete with and prevail against our adversaries in both gray and combat zones.
Brig. Gen. Len “Loni” Anderson is the deputy commanding general of Joint Task Force ARES.
Col. Brian Russell recently served as the J5 of Joint Task Force ARES and now commands II Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group in Camp Lejeune, NC.
Lt. Col. Nathan Fleischaker was formerly the chief of plans of Joint Task Force ARES and is currently a Ph.D. student at Stanford University as part of the Commandant of the Marine Corps Strategist Program.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.
Image: Staff Sgt. Jacob Osborne