For the first time in the battle against the Islamic State that's increasingly playing out over the internet, one of the militant group's hackers pleaded guilty Wednesday to breaking into US computer networks to aid its terrorist aims.
A Kosovar who was extradited to the US earlier this year, Ardit Ferizi admitted in a federal court in Virginia to providing material support to Islamic State and to breaking into the computer network belonging to an unidentified US retailer.
Data that Mr. Ferizi stole from the computers included information on more than 1,000 American government employees and military personnel that Islamic State propagandists included in hit lists that it spread to supporters via Twitter, hoping to inspire attacks.
The case against Ferizi signals the government's harder line against Islamic State partisans on the web who help facilitate the group's goals on the internet. Last year, the US killed Junaid Hussain, head of the Islamic State Hacking Division, in a drone strike in Raqqa, Syria.
“Cyberterrorists are no different from other terrorists,” said US Attorney Dana J. Boente in a statement. “No matter where they hide, we will track them down and seek to bring them to the United States to face justice.”
Sunday's Islamic State-inspired shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., that left 49 people dead is also raising new and pressing concerns about the terrorists group's reach on the web. Speaking at the White House after the attack, President Obama said the shooter, Omar Mateen, may have been inspired by “various extremist information that was disseminated over the internet.”
Known on Twitter as "Th3Dir3ctorY," Ferizi was arrested in Malaysia last year where he studied computer science. It's unknown how US authorities tracked him down, but he appeared to be part of an early effort of releasing the personal information of American to inspire attacks on soft targets, which has accelerated in recent months.
"Just imagine, the FBI is knocking on your door to inform you that your name is listed on the ISIS kill list — without knowing how and why it got there,” says Rita Katz, director of the Search for International Terrorist Entities Intelligence (SITE) Group, a private intelligence firm in Washington. “These kill lists accomplished part of ISIS’ goal: to instill fear and terrorize people.”
Since Ferizi has been in US custody, an pro-Islamic State group calling itself United Cyber Caliphate, has released more caches of Americans' personal information.
Other Islamic State affiliated groups have also started disseminate Arabic-language manuals on encrypted channels on the private chat app Telegram to help followers use smartphone encryption and other technologies to hide from government spy agencies.
“There’s an effort on their part to practice [operational security] and continue to keep their privacy and security aligned," says Alex Kassirer, an analyst at the cybersecurity firm Flashpoint.
Ferizi is scheduled to be sentenced by a US court in Virginia in September. He faces a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Michael S. Smith II, chief operating officer of the defense consulting firm Kronos Advisory, said that the US needs to do more to combat Islamic State hackers if it really wants to blunt the group's digital influence. “What should have been done is highlighting that [Ferizi] was not just providing material support in terms of a hit list, but he was out there looking to beat the drum for recruitment on Twitter.”