Hackers claiming to be affiliated with ISIS hacked US Central Command's Twitter feed and YouTube account on Monday, sending out a series of messages before the accounts were shut down. This is not, contrary what you're likely about to hear from panicked media commentators, particularly scary. In terms of actual damage to US interests, what's happened so far is basically cybervandalism.
But that doesn't mean the hack is totally meaningless. There's a perfectly good strategic reason the so-called "CyberCaliphate" might want to do a showy-but-ultimately-harmless thing like hack CENTCOM's Twitter. That reason is propaganda.
This hack does nothing to harm the US military
Hacking CENTCOM's Twitter account is nothing like actually hacking CENTCOM's computers or stealing secret CENTCOM information. It's just a twitter account.
So far, the hackers have given zero indication that they've managed to hack anything of real significance. In fact, a number of the things they tweeted on the hacked account and claimed to be classified military secrets weren't even US military documents. One map of North Korea, which the hackers claimed was part of the military's "Korean scenarios," looks an awful lot like a Federation of American Scientists map — from 1997.
That's why actual cybersecurity experts, like the New America Foundation's Peter Singer, are largely dismissing the hack.
Dear Reporters, ISIS hacking CentCom twitter does NOT effect actual war fighting capabilities. (a weak strategy on the other hand..)— Peter W. Singer (@peterwsinger) January 12, 2015
And ISIS / @CENTCOM is suspended now. End result of the hack: Lots of attention, no actual effect...just like Twitter in general.— Peter W. Singer (@peterwsinger) January 12, 2015
Since CENTCOM presumably doesn't store its secrets on Twitter or YouTube, there's no actual harm done by the hack. In terms of damage done to America or the war against ISIS, the hack is the functional equivalent of this:
Still, the hack is a propaganda win
It's theoretically possible the CyberCaliphate hackers are simply too stupid to realize that their hack is pointless in actual military terms. However, it's also possible — even likely — that they've got a subtler agenda in mind.
There's no doubt this hack, harmless as it is, embarrasses the US military. It's the kind of thing that helps rally the online jihadi troops. Social media is a major recruiting venue for ISIS. The group also has a number of internet supporters who haven't traveled to Syria or Iraq to fight, but serve as a kind of online cheering squad.
By making the US military look bad, the CyberCaliphate outfit might be trying to persuade some of these potential recruits to work with them. "Embarrass America without leaving the comfort of your own home," or something like that.
But propaganda effect of ISIS / @CENTCOM hack is real. Powerful institution, embarrassed by the little guy is a meme that resonates.— Peter W. Singer (@peterwsinger) January 12, 2015
CyberCaliphate may also be hoping this propaganda effect is strong enough to get people to physically join up with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Or they may be trying to persuade online jihadi fanboys who haven't decided whether to support ISIS versus al-Qaeda (the two groups compete for global influence among radicals) to join Team ISIS.
So, bottom line: this hack doesn't matter in substantive terms, and it doesn't indicate that ISIS has recruited some super-scary hackers to their cause. But as when you see it as part of ISIS's broader propaganda strategy, it makes perfect sense.
Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to the "Federation of American Scientists" as the "Federation of Atomic Scientists."