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Canada Is Bombing the Islamic State in Syria, and Cyberwar Centers Could Be Next

Canada's CF-18s might look to take out the Islamic State's infamous media caliphate.

by Justin Ling
Apr 13 2015, 7:40pm

Two CF-18s refuelling. Photo via the Canadian Government

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.

In extending its bombing mission to the other end of the Islamic State into its Syrian territory, Canada may be targeting its online caliphate.

And while it's a "legal minefield," the Canadian military has left the door open to striking the terrorist group's considerable communications capabilities and crippling its ability to diffuse propaganda worldwide.

But Canada's Kuwaiti command post for Operation IMPACT might yet sign off on strikes to destroy the Islamic State's ability to launch cyber attacks.

For the first time since Stephen Harper announced CF-18s would be hitting Syria, Canadian precision munitions pounded the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa on Wednesday.

The Department of National Defence says fighter jets struck an Islamic State garrison alongside American and Arab allies.

This is the start of a controversial mission that some legal experts say is an affront to international law. Opposition parties have also fervently denounced the plan.

Syria is the Islamic State's real power base. It is believed in the northeast part of the country, where Assad's government is weak, the group is housing its heavy weaponry and the majority of its fighters.

It's also where the Islamic State's nerve center can be found.

Raqqa is renowned as the Islamic State's technological hub. Their al Hayat media center is probably located in the city. It is the backdrop for many of their propaganda videos, including some bizarre military parades. It's also where they appear to be holding John Cantlie, the kidnapped photojournalist who has become a sort of mascot for the state—whether by coercion or brainwashing—and where he was almost freed in a nighttime raid on the city by US special forces.

Anonymous has tried to take down the Islamic State's ability to disseminate that sort of propaganda, but it hasn't produced much in the way of results.

The fact that Raqqa is such an important piece of the Islamic State's ability to disseminate propaganda raises the question: Can we bomb it?

Considering that Canada has made a serious effort to crack down on the Islamic State's propaganda (the government's new anti-terrorism bill would allow police to take down Canadian-hosted pro-terror online postings) it would figure that our warplanes may be targeting the infrastructure that connects Raqqa to the world.

Canada has, thus far, avoided striking populated areas. That's allowed the air force to be confident in saying that there has been no collateral damage. Strikes have been "West of Mosul" or "South of Kirkuk." Wednesday's bombing campaign was, however, "near" Raqqa.

If the air force did want to strike infrastructure or buildings closer to the city of Raqqa, they likely could without too much worry. The air force has serious precision-guided munitions and state-of-the-art imaging technology in its CP-140 Auroras, which can run surveillance and reconnaissance missions that can identify human, physical, and—in theory—technological targets with significant accuracy.

Read More: VICE interviewed the Canadian commander of the Auroras from the coalition base in Kuwait.

During a briefing on the mission earlier this month, after Ottawa signed off on the expanded mission, VICE asked Brigadier General Dan Constable whether technological targets could be fair game in Syria.

Constable said they won't be hitting targets because they're publishing propaganda—at least, that's not the consideration right now—but that doesn't mean communications hardware couldn't be in Canada's crosshairs.

"When we are able to determine everything is solid in terms of valid military targets and that they, in this case, would be doing command and control, then they become valid targets, and we can target them," Constable told VICE in the briefing.

"If your question is, you know, shifted more along the lines of what they're doing in terms of on websites and all the rest of that, that's a very different subject and, then again, we would apply all of the same targeting pieces to valid military targets"

Constable said that, above all else, the law of armed conflict applies.

As Human Rights Watch notes, that doesn't necessarily preclude hitting communications infrastructure.

"Attacks on broadcast facilities used for military communications are legitimate under the laws of war. Civilian television and radio stations are legitimate targets only if they meet the criteria for a legitimate military objective," a briefing document prepared by the NGO reads.

Constable said the questions around striking communications infrastructure becomes a question for the lawyers in the command center.

"It's a legal minefield for me as an operator," he said.

The American Air Force has clearly made a good local case for it, as they've already struck Islamic State positions that they say were used for cyber warfare.

Canada, however, decides its own missions.

"There is Canadian targeting processes that are applied as well, and when we strike, it's legal and valid military objectives," Constable said.

VICE asked for clarification from Minister of National Defence's office. The department responded by saying that they won't be getting into operational decisions on targeting.

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