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Roman wall-painting of Priests of Isis worshipping, 1st century.
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Palmyra thrived for centuries in the desert east of Damascus as an oasis and stop for caravans on the Silk Road. Part of the Roman Empire, it was a thriving, wealthy metropolis. The city-state reached its peak in the late 3rd century, when it was ruled by Queen Zenobia and briefly rebelled against Rome.
Zenobia failed, and Palmyra was re-conquered and destroyed by Roman armies in A.D. 273. Its colonnaded avenues and impressive temples were preserved by the desert climate, and in the 20th century the city was one of Syria’s biggest tourist destinations.
ISIS seized the modern town of Palmyra and the ancient ruins nearby. The militants initially promised to leave the site’s columns and temples untouched. Those promises were empty. They publicly executed Khaled al-Asaad, a Syrian archaeologist who oversaw excavations at the site for decades, and hung his headless body from a column.
And the group released photos of militants rigging the 1,900-year-old Temple of Baalshamin with explosives and blowing it up. It was one of Palmyra’s best-preserved buildings, originally dedicated to a Phoenician storm god. Now it is nothing but rubble.
Just days later, explosions were reported at the Temple of Baal, a nearby structure that was one of the site’s largest, and a United Nations agency says the building was flattened.
Anubis and Isis.
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It overrides the standard online composite licence for still images and video on the Getty Images website. The EZA account is not a licence. In order to finalise your project with the material you downloaded from your EZA account, you need to secure a licence. Without a licence, no further use can be made, such as:
- focus group presentations
- external presentations
- final materials distributed inside your organisation
- any materials distributed outside your organisation
- any materials distributed to the public (such as advertising, marketing)
Because collections are continually updated, Getty Images cannot guarantee that any particular item will be available until time of licensing. Please carefully review any restrictions accompanying the Licensed Material on the Getty Images website and contact your Getty Images representative if you have a question about them. Your EZA account will remain in place for a year. Your Getty Images representative will discuss a renewal with you.
By clicking the Download button, you accept the responsibility for using unreleased content (including obtaining any clearances required for your use) and agree to abide by any restrictions.
An Assyrian Symbol, Ancient and Modern
Nineveh was already an important urban center more than 4,000 years ago, and at its height around 700 B.C. was a capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire and the largest city in the world.
The city featured numerous temples and the sprawling 80-room palace of King Sennacherib, all surrounded by a wall 7.5 miles (12 km) long punctuated by 15 gates.
The Mashki Gate, known as the "Gate of the Watering Places," may have been used to lead livestock to the nearby Tigris River. The Adad Gate takes its name from the Mesopotamian god of weather and storms.
Sennacherib's reign was marked by his siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C. and is recorded in Assyrian sources and in the Bible, which also describes the prophet Jonah's visit to Nineveh. The city was sacked in 612 B.C. by a Babylonian alliance.
While the gates of Nineveh were rebuilt in the 20th century, they remain prized symbols of the ancient heritage of the residents of modern Mosul.
The Arab Muslim, Arab Christian and modern Assyrian population of the area all trace their ancestry back to the ancient Assyrians. "It's part of their modern identity," says Danti.
Early Islamic World
Art from the Islamic Empire covers a wide range of forms and style, reflecting the large geographical area and wide variety of cultures included in the empire. We discuss some of the most common aspects of Islamic Art below.
Arabesque Example by Jebulon. 2012.
Much of Islamic art has a distinct design. Rather than use animals or people in their design, Islamic artists often used a variety of intricate designs and patterns. This practice was a direct influence of the Islamic religion on the art. Artists felt that using figures of animals and people could result in idolatry (the worship of idols) instead of Allah.
One pattern commonly used by Islamic artists is called "arabesque." Arabesque uses intricate patterns of leaves and flowers. These patterns were common in wooden carvings, stone reliefs on buildings, textiles, and in decorated books.
Islamic artists also used geometric patterns called "tessellation" and artistic writing called "calligraphy" in their designs.
A Persian Carpet
by Unknown. Mid-16th century.
One major form of Islamic art was ceramics. Early Islamic artists created a wide variety of ceramic glazes and styles. Some were influenced by Chinese porcelain, while others created their own unique ways of glazing pottery. In addition to beautiful pieces of pottery, Islamic artists created great pieces of art using ceramic tiles. These tiles would sometimes be used to cover walls or the entire outside of religious buildings with bright patterns and designs.
One of the most practical forms of Islamic art was the carpet. While carpets were used in everyday life as floor coverings, prayer mats, wall hangings, and cushions, they were also beautiful pieces of art. These carpets often used colorful repeating geometric designs or arabesque patterns. They became a major export from the Arab world to other areas of the world including Europe.
Elaborate carvings were another popular form of art. They incorporated the same arabesque and geometric patterns used in other forms of Islamic art. Carvings were often made using wood, but could also be made from ivory, stone, or plaster. They were used to decorate important buildings, like mosques, including the ceiling, doors, and wall panels. Stands for the Islamic holy book, the Quran, were often pieces of art carved from wood.
The most popular type of painting in the early Islamic world was "miniature painting." These paintings were small and were used in fancy books called "illuminated manuscripts." These paintings were different from other pieces of Islamic art in that they often contained pictures of animals and people. This was because they depicted scenes from stories in the book.
A Miniature Painting
by Sultan Muhammad. 1515-1522.
Calligraphy, or decorative writing, was very popular in Islamic art. Often designs were created using calligraphy. In many cases, the writing would be a religious saying or verse from the Quran. Calligraphy would often be combined with geometric and arabesque patterns.
ISIS' Attack on Ancient History Called a 'War Crime'
Already notorious for videos of beheadings and executions, the extremist group that calls itself the Islamic State, or ISIS, has recently taken aim at archaeological ruins and relics in attacks that international leaders say amount to a "war crime."
Last week, ISIS released a video of the group ransacking the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq. Yesterday (March 5), Iraq's Ministry of Culture announced that ISIS had razed one of the famous capitals of the Assyrian empire, the 3,300-year-old city of Nimrud, near the banks of the Tigris River.
"The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime," UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said in a statement today. [In Photos: See the Treasures of Mesopotamia]
"This is yet another attack against the Iraqi people, reminding us that nothing is safe from the cultural cleansing underway in the country: It targets human lives, minorities, and is marked by the systematic destruction of humanity's ancient heritage," Bokova said. She called on political and religious leaders to condemn the destruction, and added that she had alerted the U.N. Security Council and the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
'Amazingly dangerous situation'
The bulldozing of Nimrud was especially shocking because it is one of the most important archaeological sites not just in Mesopotamia, but the world, said Ihsan Fethi, director of the Iraqi Architects Society.
"It was a crime against anything any civilized person would believe," Fethi added.
Nimrud covers nearly 2 square miles (5 square kilometers) and has sprawling palaces, temples and a citadel. The city was built by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser I in the 13th century B.C. A few centuries later, it became the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, considered by some scholars to be the first true empire in world history.
You hardly had to go to Nimrud to appreciate its architecture and artwork. Today, museums like the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York display Nimrud's statues of human-headed winged beasts, known as lamassu, as well as intricately carved reliefs showing lions, kings, gods and scenes of battle that once decorated palace walls.
Nimrud has a long history of excavations by Western archaeologists, going back to the mid-19th century. Sir Austen Henry Layard brought reliefs from the ancient city to the British Museum and other collections in the late 1840s and 1850s. One hundred years later, another British archaeologist, Max Mallowan, directed excavations at Nimrud. (His wife, the mystery novelist Agatha Christie, often joined the expeditions.)
Still, Fethi estimated that only 15 to 20 percent of the city had been excavated, and the site possibly hides more discoveries, which, at least in the near future, have little chance of being explored.
"This is an amazingly dangerous situation," Fethi said. "The longer [ISIS] stay, the more destruction we'll see."
Fethi worries that the next target could be the ancient city of Hatra &mdash another UNESCO World Heritage Site that was founded in the third century B.C., some 70 miles (110 km) southwest of Mosul. (Those who don't know Hatra for its impressive temples and architecture might know the ancient city from its cameo in "The Exorcist.") [See Photos of Amazing UNESCO World Heritage Sites]
Documenting the damage
The events have been both heartbreaking and frustrating for archaeologists and cultural heritage specialists watching from afar.
"We can express outrage and highlight the enormous loss that's going on &mdash and the significance of that loss &mdash but beyond that, it's extremely difficult to do anything," said Paul Collins of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq.
For now, some experts are trying to at least take stock of what may have been lost.
Christopher Jones, a doctoral student who is studying the history of the ancient Near East at Columbia University, said he downloaded the video of ISIS pillaging the Mosul Museum last week and went through the footage bit by bit, taking screenshots and notes. On his blog, Gates of Nineveh, Jones published a two-part post describing the objects he could identify.
He had to turn to older images from inside the museum and obscure publications &mdash older books and academic papers, mostly in Arabic &mdash to piece together a picture of what was destroyed. Some of the objects that were smashed at the Mosul Museum were clearly replicas.
"You can tell from some of them by the way they break," Jones said. Plaster casts tend to shatter, while authentically ancient stone sculptures are much more durable when they're toppled over.
Some of the more dramatic scenes in the ISIS video seem to involve replicas or casts. In one part of the video, a plaster copy of a statue of Hercules is pushed to the floor, and it immediately smashes into thousands of little pieces, kicking up a cloud of white dust. In another scene, a sculpture of a face hanging on the wall of the museum's Hatra Hall falls to the floor in slow motion after a man in a purple polo shirt takes a sledgehammer to it. Jones spoke to Lucinda Dirven, an expert on Hatra, who thinks the face could be a plaster cast of one of the masks that was built into a wall at the ancient city.
That Hercules statue was listed as one of the four replicas in the Hatra Hall, according to a basic inventory of the Mosul Museum that was shared on the IraqCrisis cultural heritage mailing list. But there were 30 other objects from the same gallery listed as authentic, including four statues of kings from Hatra. All four of those statues seem to have been destroyed &mdash a 15 percent loss of all existing statues of Hatrene kings, as just 27 were known, Jones said.
Besides the Hatra Hall, the Mosul Museum has two other galleries: one dedicated to Assyrian art with reliefs and statues from Nimrud and Nineveh (another ancient Assyrian capital) and an Islamic hall, which was not shown in the video.
That video also cut to footage taken beyond the walls of the museum, at Nineveh. It showed men using power tools to destroy the colossal lamassu that stood guard at the Nergal Gate Museum. The winged statues were among the few that hadn't already been shipped off to other museums.
"Those were some of the few lamassu that were still in situ," Jones said.
How The U.S. Hacked ISIS
Neil stands in a room with military cyber operators from Joint Task Force ARES to launch an operation that would become one of the largest and longest offensive cyber operations in U.S. military history. Josh Kramer for NPR hide caption
Neil stands in a room with military cyber operators from Joint Task Force ARES to launch an operation that would become one of the largest and longest offensive cyber operations in U.S. military history.
The crowded room was awaiting one word: "Fire."
Everyone was in uniform there were scheduled briefings, last-minute discussions, final rehearsals. "They wanted to look me in the eye and say, 'Are you sure this is going to work?' " an operator named Neil said. "Every time, I had to say yes, no matter what I thought." He was nervous, but confident. U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency had never worked together on something this big before.
Four teams sat at workstations set up like high school carrels. Sergeants sat before keyboards intelligence analysts on one side, linguists and support staff on another. Each station was armed with four flat-screen computer monitors on adjustable arms and a pile of target lists and IP addresses and online aliases. They were cyberwarriors, and they all sat in the kind of oversize office chairs Internet gamers settle into before a long night.
"I felt like there were over 80 people in the room, between the teams and then everybody lining the back wall that wanted to watch," Neil recalled. He asked us to use only his first name to protect his identity. "I'm not sure how many people there were on the phones listening in or in chat rooms."
From his vantage point in a small elevated bay at the back of the Operations Floor, Neil had a clear line of sight to all the operators' screens. And what they contained weren't glowing lines of code: Instead, Neil could see login screens — the actual login screens of ISIS members half a world away. Each one carefully preselected and put on a target list that, by Operation Day, had become so long it was on a 3-foot-by-7-foot piece of paper hung on the wall.
It looked like a giant bingo card. Each number represented a different member of the ISIS media operation. One number represented an editor, for instance, and all the accounts and IP addresses associated with him. Another might have been the group's graphic designer. As members of the terrorist group slept, a room full of military cyber operators at Fort Meade, Md., near Baltimore were ready to take over the accounts and crash them.
All they were waiting for was Neil, to say that one word: "Fire."
In August 2015, the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, the military's main cyber arm, were at a crossroads about how to respond to a new terrorist group that had burst on the scene with unrivaled ferocity and violence. The one thing on which everyone seemed to agree is that ISIS had found a way to do something other terrorist organizations had not: It had turned the Web into a weapon. ISIS routinely used encrypted apps, social media and splashy online magazines and videos to spread its message, find recruits and launch attacks.
A response to ISIS required a new kind of warfare, and so the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command created a secret task force, a special mission, and an operation that would become one of the largest and longest offensive cyber operations in U.S. military history. Few details about Joint Task Force ARES and Operation Glowing Symphony have been made public.
"It was a house of cards"
Steve Donald, a captain in the Naval Reserve, specializes in something called cryptologic and cyber operations, and when he is not in uniform, he is launching cybersecurity startups outside Washington, D.C. He's pale, bespectacled and has the slightly shy demeanor of a computer geek. In the spring of 2016 he received a phone call from the leader of his reserve unit. He needed Donald to come in.
"I said, well, I'm not in uniform [and he said] it doesn't matter — if you have a badge come on in," Donald said. "I can't believe I can actually say this but they were building a task force to conduct offensive cyber operations against ISIS."
Donald had to find a team of specialists to do something that had never been done before — hack into a terrorist organization's media operation and bring it down. Most of the forces flowed in from Joint Forces Headquarters, an Army cyber operation in Georgia. Donald also brought in experts in counterterrorism who understood ISIS and had watched it evolve from a ragtag team of Iraqi Islamists to something bigger. There were operators — the people who would be at the keyboards finding key servers in ISIS's network and disabling them — and digital forensics specialists who had a deep understanding of computer operating systems.
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"They can say this is good, this is bad, this is where the files are located that we're interested in," he said. He found analysts, malware experts, behaviorialists and people who had spent years studying the smallest habits of key ISIS players. The mission, he explained to them, was to support the defeat of ISIS — to deny, degrade and disrupt them in cyberspace.
This was more complicated than it sounded.
The battle against the group had been episodic to that point. U.S. Cyber Command had been mounting computer network attacks against the group, but almost as soon as a server would go down, communications hubs would reappear. The ISIS target was always moving and the group had good operational security. Just physically taking down the ISIS servers wasn't going to be enough. There needed to be a psychological component to any operation against the group as well.
"This cyber environment involves people," Neil said. "It involves their habits. The way that they operate the way that they name their accounts. When they come in during the day, when they leave, what types of apps they have on their phone. Do they click everything that comes into their inbox? Or are they very tight and restrictive in what they use? All those pieces are what we look at, not just the code."
Neil is a Marine reservist in his 30s, and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Operation Glowing Symphony was his idea. "We were down in the basement at the NSA, and we had an epiphany," he said. He had been tracking ISIS's propaganda arm for months — painstakingly tracing uploaded videos and magazines back to their source, looking for patterns to reveal how they were distributed or who was uploading them. Then he noticed something that he hadn't seen before: ISIS was using just 10 core accounts and servers to manage the distribution of its content across the world.
The mission — led by a special unit working with U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA — was to get inside the ISIS network and disrupt the terrorist organization's media operation. Josh Kramer for NPR hide caption
The mission — led by a special unit working with U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA — was to get inside the ISIS network and disrupt the terrorist organization's media operation.
"Every account, every IP, every domain, every financial account, every email account . everything," Neil said. The group's network administrators weren't as careful as they should have been. They took a shortcut and kept going back to the same accounts to manage the whole ISIS media network. They bought things online through those nodes they uploaded ISIS media they made financial transactions. They even had file sharing through them. "If we could take those over," Neil said, grinning, "we were going to win everything."
The young Marine ran into his leadership's office at the NSA, grabbed a marker and started drawing crazy circles and lines on a whiteboard. "I was pointing everywhere and saying, 'It's all connected these are the key points. Let's go," he recalled. "I felt like I was in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, when he's doing the mystery investigation for Pepe Silvia. Pictures on the wall and red yarn everywhere and nobody was understanding me."
But as Neil kept explaining and drawing he could see the leaders begin to nod. "I drew this bicycle tire with spokes and all the things that were tied to this one node and then there was another one," he said. "It was a house of cards."
We confirmed this account with three people who were there at the time. And from those scrawls, the mission known as Operation Glowing Symphony began to take shape. The goal was to build a team and an operation that would deny, degrade and disrupt ISIS's media operation.
The cyber equivalent of a surgical strike
The spring and summer of 2016 were spent preparing for attack. And while members of Task Force ARES didn't reveal everything they did to crack into ISIS's network, one thing they used early on was a hacking standby: a phishing email. ISIS members "clicked on something or they did something that then allowed us to gain control and then start to move," said Gen. Edward Cardon, the first commander of Task Force ARES.
Almost every hack starts with hacking a human, cracking a password or finding some low-level unpatched vulnerability in software. "The first thing you do when you get in there is you've got to get some persistence and spread out," Cardon said, adding that the ideal thing is to get an administrator's account. "You can operate freely inside the network because you look like a normal IT person." (ISIS didn't just have IT people it had an entire IT department.)
Once ARES operators were inside the ISIS network, they began opening back doors and dropping malware on servers while looking for folders that contained things that might be helpful later, like encryption keys or folders with passwords. The deeper ARES got inside ISIS's network, the more it looked like the theory about the 10 nodes was correct.
But there was a problem. Those nodes weren't in Syria and Iraq. They were everywhere — on servers around the world, sitting right next to civilian content. And that complicated things. "On every server there might be things from other commercial entities," said Air Force Gen. Tim Haugh, the first deputy commander of JTF ARES working under Cardon. "We were only going to touch that little sliver of the adversary space and not perturb anyone else."
If ISIS had stored something in the cloud or on a server sitting in, say, France, ARES had to show Defense Department officials and members of Congress that U.S. cyber operators had the skill to do the cyber equivalent of a surgical strike: attack the ISIS material on a server without taking down the civilian material sitting right next to it.
They spent months launching small missions that showed they could attack ISIS content on a server that also contained something vital like hospital records. Being able to do that meant they could target ISIS material outside Syria and Iraq. "And I looked at this young Marine and said, 'How big can we go?' and he said, 'Sir, we can do global.' I said, 'That's it — write it down, we're going to take it to Gen. Cardon.' "
That Marine was Neil. He began peppering the leadership with ideas. He talked to them about not just hacking one person . or ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but how to take down the media operation's entire global network. "That's how these attacks work," Neil said. "They start very simple and they become more complex."
There was something else about Task Force ARES that was different: Young operators like Neil were briefing generals directly. "A lot of [ideas] come up that way, like somebody says, 'Well, we could gain access and do this to the files.' Really? You can do that? 'Oh yeah.' Would anyone notice? 'Well, maybe, but the chances are low.' It's like, hmmm, that's interesting, put that on the list."
Cardon said young operators on Joint Task Force ARES understood hacking in a visceral way and, in many respects, understood what was possible in cyberspace better than commanding officers did, so having a direct line to the people making the decisions was key.
"An incredible rush"
By the fall of 2016 there was a team, Joint Task Force ARES there was a plan called Operation Glowing Symphony, and there were briefings — that had gone right up to the president. It was only then that there was finally a go. This account of the first night of Operation Glowing Symphony is based on interviews with half a dozen people directly involved.
After months of looking at static webpages and picking their way through ISIS's networks, the task force starting logging in as the enemy. They deleted files. Changed passwords. "Click there," a digital forensic expert would say. "We're in," the operator would respond.
There were some unintentionally comical moments. Six minutes in there was very little happening, Neil recalls. "The Internet was a little slow," he said without irony. "And then you know minute seven, eight, nine, 10, it started to flow in, and my heart started beating again."
They began moving through the ISIS networks they had mapped for months. Participants describe it like watching a raid team clearing a house, except it was all online. Logging into accounts they had followed. Using passwords they discovered. Then, just as their move through targets started to accelerate, a roadblock: a security question. A standard, "what was your high school mascot"-type security question.
The question: "What is the name of your pet?"
"And we're stuck dead in our tracks," Neil said. "We all look to each other and we're like, what can we do? There's no way we're going to get in. This is going to stop the 20 or 30 targets after this."
Then an analyst stood up in the back of the room.
"How do you know that? [And he said] 'I've been looking at this guy for a year. He does it for everything.' And we're like, all right . your favorite pet. 1-2-5-7.
After that, the momentum started to build. One team would take screenshots to gather intelligence for later another would lock ISIS videographers out of their own accounts.
"Reset Successful" one screen would say.
"Folder directory deleted," said another.
The screens they were seeing on the Ops floor on the NSA campus were the same ones someone in Syria might have been looking at in real time, until someone in Syria hit refresh. Once he did that, he would see: 404 error: Destination unreadable.
"Target 5 is done," someone would yell.
Someone else would walk across the room and cross the number off the big target sheet on the wall. "We're crossing names off the list. We're crossing accounts off the list. We're crossing IPs off the list," said Neil. And every time a number went down they would yell one word: "Jackpot!"
"We'd draw the line out and I had stacks of paper coming up on the corner of my desk," Neil said. "I knew in about the first 15 minutes that we were on pace to accomplish exactly what we need to accomplish."
Once they had taken control of the 10 nodes, and had locked key people out of their accounts, ARES operators just kept chewing their way through the target list. "We spent the next five or six hours just shooting fish in a barrel," Neil said. "We'd been waiting a long time to do that and we had seen a lot of bad things happen and we were happy to see them go away."
And there was something else that Neil said was hard to describe. "When you reach through the computer and on the other side is a terrorist organization, and you're that close, and you're touching something that's theirs, that they possess, that they put a lot of time and effort in to to hurt you, that is an incredible rush," he said. "You have the control to take that away."
Enough to drive you nuts
Brig. Gen. Jennifer Buckner was one of the people who took the reins of Task Force ARES after Glowing Symphony had started. And after that first night, the mission shifted into a second phase, one aimed at keeping pressure on ISIS with essentially five lines of effort: Keep the media operation under pressure, make it difficult for ISIS to operate on the Web more generally, use cyber to help forces on the ground fighting ISIS, hobble its ability to raise money, and work with other agencies in the U.S. and allies abroad.
The second phase of Operation Glowing Symphony focused on sowing confusion within ISIS. Joint Task Force ARES operators worked to make the attack look like frustrating, daily-life IT problems: dead batteries, slow downloads, forgotten passwords. Josh Kramer for NPR hide caption
The second phase of Operation Glowing Symphony focused on sowing confusion within ISIS. Joint Task Force ARES operators worked to make the attack look like frustrating, daily-life IT problems: dead batteries, slow downloads, forgotten passwords.
Once the distribution hubs were hamstrung, the second phase of the mission was more creative. Joint Task Force ARES operators started making all those things that drive you crazy about today's technology — slow downloads, dropped connections, access denied, program glitches — and made it start happening to ISIS fighters. "Some of these are not sophisticated effects, but they don't need to be," Buckner said. "The idea that yesterday I could get into my Instagram account and today I can't is confusing."
And potentially enraging. When you can't get into an email account, what do you do? You think: Maybe I mistyped the login or password. So you put it in again and it still doesn't work. Then you type it in more deliberately. And every time you type it, press enter, and are denied, you get a little more frustrated. If you're at work, you call the IT department, you explain the issue and then they ask you if you're sure you typed your login and password in correctly. It is enough to drive you nuts. It might never occur to you, or to ISIS, that this might be part of a cyberattack.
That's what the follow-on phases of Operation Glowing Symphony were about. Psy-ops with a high-tech twist. A member of ISIS would stay up all night editing a film and ask a fellow ISIS member to upload it. Operators with JTF ARES would make it so it didn't quite land at its destination. The ISIS member who stayed up all night starts asking the other ISIS member why he didn't do what he'd asked. He gets angry. And so on.
"We had to understand, how did all of that work?" Buckner said. "And so, what is the best way to cause confusion online?"
The ideas that flowed up from operators like Neil were endless. Let's drain their cellphone batteries or insert photographs into videos that weren't supposed to be there. Task Force ARES would watch, react and adjust its plans. It would change passwords, or buy domain names, delete content, all in a way that made it (mostly) look like it was just run-of-the mill IT problems.
"Pinwheels of death the network's working really slow," Cardon couldn't help smiling as he went through the list. "People get frustrated."
According to three people who were privy to after-action reports, ISIS's media operation was a shadow of its former self six months after Neil said "Fire" to start Operation Glowing Symphony. Most of the media operations servers were down and the group had not been able to reconstitute them.
There were lots of reasons for that, not the least of which is that getting a new server in the middle of a war zone deep inside Syria isn't easy to do. ISIS had plenty of cash but few credit cards, bank accounts or reputable emails that would allow it to order new servers from outside the country. Buying new domain names, which are used to identify IP addresses, is also complicated.
ISIS's popular online magazine, Dabiq, started missing deadlines and eventually folded. The group's foreign-language websites — in everything from Bengali to Urdu — also never came back up. The mobile app for Amaq Agency, the group's official news service, vanished.
"Within the first 60 minutes of go, I knew we were having success," Gen. Paul Nakasone, director of the NSA, told NPR in an interview. "We would see the targets start to come down. It's hard to describe but you can just sense it from being in the atmosphere, that the operators, they know they're doing really well. They're not saying that, but you're there and you know it."
Nakasone was there because he was the head of Joint Task Force ARES when Operation Glowing Symphony actually launched. Nakasone said that before ARES the fight against ISIS in cyberspace was episodic. JTF ARES ensures it is continuous. "We were going to make sure that anytime ISIS was going to raise money or communicate with their followers, we were going to be there."
Some critics have said that the mere fact that ISIS is still on the Web means Operation Glowing Symphony didn't work. Nakasone, naturally, sees it differently. He says ISIS has had to change the way it operates. It isn't as strong in cyberspace as it was. It is still there, yes, but not in the same way.
"We were seeing an adversary that was able to leverage cyber to raise a tremendous amount of money to proselytize," he said. "We were seeing a series of videos and posts and media products that were high-end. We haven't seen that recently. . As ISIS shows their head or shows that ability to act, we're going to be right there."
Three years after Neil said "Fire," ARES is still in ISIS networks. Gen. Matthew Glavy is now the commander of Joint Task Force ARES. He says his operators still have a thumb on ISIS's media operations the group is still having a lot of trouble operating freely on the Web. But it is hard to be sure why that is. While ARES has been hacking into ISIS in cyberspace, forces on the ground have driven the group out of most of Syria and Iraq.
ISIS itself has spread out. It now has fighters in Libya and Mali and even the Philippines. Glavy says his operators are still there. "We cannot have for them to gain the momentum that we saw in the past," he told me. "We have to learn that lesson."
"The whole point of the doomsday machine"
For most of the Obama administration, officials refused to talk about cyberattacks. Now the U.S. has not only confirmed the existence of cyberweapons but is starting to tell journalists, like those at NPR, about how they wield them. Cyberattacks, once taboo to even discuss, are becoming more normalized. In its military authorization bill last year, Congress cleared the way for the defense secretary to authorize some cyberattacks without going to the White House.
But there is a dark side to this new arsenal. The U.S. isn't the only country that has turned to cyber. Consider the case of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in a Saudi embassy late last year cybertools are thought to have been part of that case too. "A lot of the preparation for that and the lead-up to it had to do with Saudi Arabia using offensive weapons," said Ron Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.
Deibert's researchers found offensive cybertools tracking the journalist and his inner circle. "When we talk about offensive cyber operations, I think it's important to understand that it doesn't always come in one flavor," Deibert said, adding that the Khashoggi case is far from the exception. In Mexico alone, Citizen Lab found 27 cases of this kind of offensive cybertool targeting political rivals, reporters and civil rights lawyers. Six years ago, it rather famously discovered that China had been hacking into the Dalai Lama's computer networks.
Deibert is worried about escalation. "You really create conditions for an escalation of an arms race in cyberspace that really could come back to haunt the United States in the long run," Deibert said. "There's a demonstration effect. The equipment, the software, the methods, the capabilities proliferate." Deibert says U.S. reluctance to use offensive cyber has vanished. "Now . what we're talking about is something that is more active," he said.
Nakasone made clear things had changed when he talked to NPR a few months ago at the NSA campus at Fort Meade. He uses terms like "persistent engagement" and "defend forward." He says that they are "part of the DOD cyber strategy that talks about acting outside our borders to ensure that we maintain contact with our adversaries in cyberspace."
In other words, you don't wait to be attacked in cyberspace. You do things that would allow you to hack back if there is an attack in the future. That could be deploying a small team in another country that asks for help or "hunting on our networks to look for malware, or it could be as we did in Operation Glowing Symphony, the idea of being able to impact infrastructure worldwide," he said.
All this is important now because you can draw a straight line from Joint Task Force ARES to a new unit from the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command: something called the Russia Small Group. Just as Joint Task Force ARES focused on ISIS, the Russia Small Group is organized in much the same way around Russian cyberattacks.
The mission against ISIS in cyberspace continues, though there is a dark side to fighting with this new arsenal: The U.S. isn't the only country using these kinds of weapons, and experts worry about proliferation. Josh Kramer for NPR hide caption
The mission against ISIS in cyberspace continues, though there is a dark side to fighting with this new arsenal: The U.S. isn't the only country using these kinds of weapons, and experts worry about proliferation.
In June, the New York Times reported that the U.S. had cracked into Russia's electrical power grid and planted malware there. Nakasone wouldn't confirm the Times story, but it isn't hard to see how planting malware in anticipation of needing it later would fit into the Russia Small Group's operations if it is modeled on ARES.
Nakasone said the first thing he did when he became NSA director in 2018 was to review what the Russians had done in the runup to the U.S. presidential election, so U.S. Cyber Command could learn from it and reverse-engineer it to see how it works. "It provided us with a very, very good road map of what they might do in the future," Nakasone said. He said Cyber Command was poised to act if the Russians attempt to hack the 2020 elections. "We will impose costs," he said, "on adversaries that attempt to impact our elections. I think it's important for the American public to understand that as with any domain — air, land, sea, or space — cyberspace is the same way our nation has a force."
So why is Nakasone talking about this now?
Deibert thinks this is part of a deterrent justification. "You can't have cyber operations meaningfully deter your adversaries unless they know that you have these capabilities," he said. "But what's not probably being discussed or appreciated is the extent to which there is a systemic effect of the use of these operations. Other countries take notice."
At the end of Stanley Kubrick's film Dr. Strangelove there is an iconic scene in which the doomsday bomb is seen as the ultimate deterrent, but it only works as a deterrent if people know it exists. If you don't tell anyone about it, what good is it? "The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret," Peter Sellers concludes in the movie.
You could say the same thing about American offensive cyber operations. They have been so stealthy for so long, maybe people don't realize we have them.
We hear all about Russia's influence campaigns and Chinese intellectual property thefts and Iranian hackers trolling American infrastructure, but we rarely hear in any detailed way about the American response. Nakasone appears to be starting to address that.
The irony is that offensive cyber's richest target is us. "The United States is the country most highly dependent on these technologies," Deibert said. "And arguably the most vulnerable to these sorts of attacks. I think there should be far more attention devoted to thinking about proper systems of security, to defense."
Mural Room Likely Used for Cofradías’ Fraternity Rituals
The fact that the paintings were found in a domestic space may indicate aspects of their origin and function. The house has been owned by the Asicona family for generations and they believe that the rooms with the painting were used to receive guests in the past. Monika Banach told Ancient Origins that ‘One of the interpretations that we considered is that the owners of the house belonged to the religious brotherhoods and sisterhoods known in Spanish as Cofradías’.
These fraternities were introduced by the Spanish and are still common in Central America, including Chajul. However, many of their members were killed during the Guatemalan civil war when the army launched a genocidal campaign against the Ixils. These associations revered Catholic saints but they also adopted many of the ancestral traditions of the local Maya. According to the present owners of the house, some of their family members joined the religious fraternities and it appears that the rooms with the murals were used by Cofradías for meetings and rituals. The paintings show that the Ixil create a syncretic series of beliefs and cultural practices during the Colonial period, illustrated in the mixture of European and indigenous styles of the murals.
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