How to Lose a Cyberwar

Why is America still letting online jihadists run amok?

The five young men detained in Pakistan this week -- like a whole new generation of jihadis -- appear to have made considerable use of the Internet in their alleged approach to al Qaeda. Their story points out that, more than eight years after 9/11, terrorist networks are still not only able to stay in touch via cyberspace, but that they are even extending their reach thanks to our giving them a free ride in the virtual domain.

U.S. President Barack Obama often speaks about his central strategic objective of denying al Qaeda its haven in Waziristan, but he says nary a word about taking away its "virtual haven" in cyberspace. This omission is more than his alone, as none of the key military, intelligence, and law-enforcement arms of the U.S. government have done much to curtail terrorist use of the Net.

Those who do try to keep an eye on terrorism in cyberspace often argue that they learn a lot about enemy networks by monitoring their narratives on jihadi websites. But if this made a real difference, we would have already won the war on terror.

Instead of thinking of cyberspace principally as a place to gather intelligence, we need to elevate it to the status of "battlespace." This means that we either want to exploit terrorists' use of the Web and Net unbeknownst to them, or we want to drive them from it.

We need to think of gaining an information edge, like the one enjoyed by the Allies in World War II. In that conflict, the first high-performance computing capability was created, and broke German and Japanese codes, enabling a series of victories to be won -- from the Mediterranean to Midway -- long before Allied material advantages could be brought to bear.

A similar capability fielded today against al Qaeda would do much more than just catch confused young men on their journey to the jihad. It would also intercept the messages that guide the movement of terrorist money, identify existing cells and nodes and enable us to go after them in the physical world, and allow us to preempt new attacks.

The officials I try to lobby in favor of creating this new "Magic" (the American name for the World War II code-breaking capability) always argue that, once the enemy realizes we have this capability, they will go to ground and we will know even less about where they are and what they intend to do next.

I make two replies to this objection. The first is that neither the Germans nor the Japanese ever figured out that the Allies could break their codes. Indeed, they were convinced that they had high-level traitors within their own regimes.

My second reply is that, even if the enemy finds out that we're on to them in cyberspace, all they can do is leave the virtual world. This would absolutely cripple a network spread out across more than 60 countries. And it would have a very chilling effect on potential recruits if they thought they might be under surveillance as soon as they started clicking.  No more Sargodha Fives.

But, for all the benefits of striving for this information edge, there is one big difference from the situation during World War II:  We need to develop more than just code-breaking capabilities. We must also focus on detection and tracking tools, and craft international agreements that allow us to move swiftly in hot pursuit among servers located across many different sovereignties.

The alternative to getting more aggressive about exploiting the terrorists in cyberspace, or driving them from it, is that the networks will continue to metastasize. The young men in Sargodha are not even the tip of the iceberg. If the al Qaeda narrative appeals to only 5 percent of the Muslim world -- as many experts suggest -- we're still talking about a core constituency of some 70 million people.

But if wannabe jihadis are attracted to the 12th-century logic of al Qaeda, they still need 21st-century information technology to link up. The events in Sargodha, the other current case of David Headley in Chicago, and the earlier instance of Najibullah Zazi the Denver airport shuttle driver, all point to an emergent subculture -- one that is increasingly enabled by and dependent upon cyberspace.

So let's take advantage of this dependence. Now.

John Moore/Getty Images


How Israelis See Obama

It’s not what you think -- and it may not even matter, compared to how they see Israel's own situation.

Perhaps a U.S. president's approval rating among Israeli citizens is somewhat trivial. After all, Barack Obama's re-election will be decided in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, not in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Netanya. Nevertheless, the notion persists that a U.S. president's approval rating in Israel can significantly affect his ability to conclude a comprehensive peace agreement. That is why Obama's alleged rock-bottom 4 percent approval rating among Israelis -- a result within the margin of error -- has become cause for concern.

In fact, however, the number is a red herring. Our own survey results suggest that the stalemate in the peace agreement has little to do with Israeli perceptions of Obama -- which are far more favorable than one might think -- but is actually more deeply linked to Israeli complacency and comfort with the status quo.

The 4 percent figure, now a ubiquitous marker of Obama's failure in the Middle East, originally came from a Jerusalem Post survey this summer. But it wasn't an approval rating. The survey question asked whether Israelis believed Obama was "more pro-Israel," rather than "more pro-Palestinian" or neutral. The Western media have adopted this statistic (as in this recent New York Times editorial) often to argue that the president doesn't have the Israeli support necessary to bolster his efforts in the peace process.

But the number is misleading. To clarify Israeli public opinion, we commissioned a poll of 1,000 Israelis, undertaken by Gerstein Agne Strategic Communications and recently released by the New America Foundation, shedding new light on Obama's actual standing in Israel. And the bottom line is that, particularly given how little Obama has invested in speaking directly to the Israeli public, he is viewed in a relatively positive light. The favorability rating our results show, 41 percent (with 37 percent unfavorable) is 10 times that claimed by the Jerusalem Post. While this is not astronomically high for a U.S. president, it is notably stronger than the favorability ratings for Israel's foreign and defense ministers, and a mere seven points below that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This is not to say that Israelis don't have concerns about Obama: For instance, 50 percent believe he is weak on terrorism, and only 42 percent agree that he supports Israel.

In a panel this week at the New America Foundation, Gil Tamary of Israel's Channel 10 News explained that much of Obama's relative unpopularity in Israel is a direct consequence of the Israeli press's daily attacks on him. But based on our survey results, should Obama decide to make a direct pitch to the Israeli public, his starting position would be one of relative strength. Obama has not yet reached out to Israelis in the way he has to the Muslim world, with his historic trips to Egypt and Turkey. A similarly momentous state visit to Israel could build a tremendous amount of goodwill with an already receptive Israeli public.

However, when it comes to building peace in the long term, the poll's other findings on Israeli public opinion may prove even more consequential for an administration that finds itself at an impasse. According to the poll, Israelis would support any peace agreement reached under Netanyahu by a margin of 59 to 34 percent. They even favor a U.S.-defined peace deal, like the one attempted by President Bill Clinton at Taba in 2001, by 53 to 45 percent. The only problem is that Israelis do not seem to think that peace with the Palestinians and neighboring states is an urgent priority or that its absence carries any sufficiently immediate and negative consequences. 

So in effect, Obama's popularity or lack thereof has little to do with the prospects for peace. The real problem is, simply, Israelis are happy with the situation as it stands and have little motivation to change it. Only by a small majority of 4 percentage points do Israelis believe that they cannot shoulder the economic and security burdens of the status quo, and even fewer think that U.S. support for Israel will decline if there is no peace (by 49 to 47 percent, within the margin of error).

Given the daunting challenge of moving a number of the 500,000 Israeli settlers living beyond the green line, the country's original 1949 borders, (or leaving some under a future Palestinian sovereignty), one begins to understand why the current cost-benefit calculation weighs in favor of maintaining the status quo.

If there's any encouraging news for the Israeli government in our results, it's the pronounced Israeli capacity for pragmatism. This is evidenced in Israeli popular support for Netanyahu's negotiations with Hamas over a prisoner exchange, border-crossing issues, and informal understandings on a cease-fire. Although only 36 percent of Israelis consider their own prime minister "honest and trustworthy," according to our results (this compares with 55 percent who attribute these qualities to Obama), a commanding 69 percent approve of Netanyahu's handling of security. Indeed, the poll suggests that Netanyahu has far more wiggle room on the Palestinian issue than is generally assumed.

In the end, the poll shows that Israelis care most about regular bread-and-butter issues. When asked what would be their top reasons to support a peace, a "more normal life for our children" and "economic growth" come in first and second (polling 50 and 37 percent, respectively). Even recognition by 22 Arab states -- so ardently pursued by the administration and promoted by Congress -- motivates only 15 percent of Israelis.

In other words, Israelis see few reasons not to continue the occupation and are perhaps being offered the wrong kinds of incentives for choosing a different path. The behavior of Israel's leadership is consistent with a short-term political calculation that Israelis aren't willing to disrupt the present scenario. Continuing and even entrenching the occupation, for example, avoids hard and coalition-threatening political choices at home, incurs the most minimal international and domestic costs, and is not seen to defer new and meaningful benefits that Israelis would enjoy conditional on a peace deal. For any new peace effort to have a chance at breaking the logjam, then, its starting point will need to be the creation of a new architecture of incentives and disincentives -- and Obama's popularity, or lack thereof, will be left up to the people of Virginia.