In a bombshell report on Monday, The New York Times revealed just how difficult the cyber war against the Islamic State (ISIS) has been, along with a remarkable success in hacking ISIS with the help of Israel.
“Top Israeli cyberoperators penetrated a small cell of extremist bombmakers in Syria months ago,” the Times quoted U.S. cyber officials as saying. “That was how the United States learned that the terrorist group was working to make explosives that fooled airport X-ray machines and other screening by looking exactly like batteries for laptop computers.”
The Times‘ David Sanger and Eric Schmitt reported that this intelligence was “so exquisite that it enabled the United States to understand how the weapons could be detonated.”
This information also led to a controversial ban on large electronics like laptops on select flights to the U.S. As the Times reported, “The information helped prompt a ban in March on large electronic devices in cary-on luggage on flights from 10 airports in eight Muslim-majority countries to the United States and Britain.”
But this Israeli hack has also been connected to the Trump-Russia narrative. The Times reported that the Israeli cyberattack “was also part of the classified intelligence that President Trump is accused of revealing when he met in the Oval Office last month with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and the ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak.” Trump has been accused of releasing classified intel in a May meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak.
The Washington Post reported that during the meeting Trump shared information “provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government.”
This disclosure reportedly “jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.” The Times report suggests exactly what was leaked, and why Trump may have told the Russians about it.
The Israelis did not welcome the Russians learning about this news. “His disclosure infuriated Israeli officials,” the Times reported. In May, the Post reported that the U.S. ally (Israel, according to this new report) had not given Trump the permission to share the information with Russia.
Since the U.S. and Russia are both (at least nominally) at war with the Islamic State, these revelations might be defensible, but Israeli intelligence is also none of Russia’s business.
While Israel’s success in this cyberattack is heartening, the Times report listed many U.S. intelligence operations that have failed to derail the attempts of ISIS.
“The Islamic State’s agenda and tactics make it a particularly tough foe for cyberwarfare,” the Times reported. “The jihadists use computers and social media not to develop or launch weapons but to recruit, raise money and coordinate future attacks.”
The ISIS Internet efforts are “not tied to a single place,” and “the militants can take advantage of remarkably advanced, low-cost encryption technologies.”
The largest difficulty with Russia gaining Israeli intelligence is not just that Trump was not given permission to share it. Some have argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to “fight ISIS” are a smokescreen to advance his real global interests, including using terrorism to excuse Russian expansion.
In this situation, Russia gaining information about Israeli intelligence is not a victory in the fight against ISIS, but rather yet another coup for Putin in his global advance.