DRAPER, Utah – It was a hot Saturday afternoon in July 2005. U.S. forces quickly surrounded an internet café on the outskirts of Baghdad and captured an al-Qaida courier outside. An email was recovered, signed by the terrorist network’s then second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, who was hiding deep in Pakistan. The email was addressed to the al-Qaida leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, known as the “Sheikh of the Slaughterers.”
In the email, Al-Zawahri outlined a step-by-step plan to expel Americans from Iraq and establish a caliphate. Part of that plan was focused on a new battlefield.
“I say to you,” Al-Zawahri wrote in Arabic, “that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place online.”
It was a call to action.
More than a decade later, 18 Utah Army National Guard soldiers from the 174th Cyber Protection Team departed from Utah National Guard Headquarters in Draper, headed to Fort Meade, Maryland, to join the online battle as part of Task Force Echo III.
The task force consists of 12 states working together under the 126th Cyber Battalion based out of Massachusetts. The team will be defending the continuity and stability of U.S. infrastructure during its 400-day deployment.
“We live in an increasingly complex world,” Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, adjutant general of the Utah National Guard, said during the team’s departure ceremony. “This nation is much more difficult to defend than it was a couple of years ago.”
He said that while Fort Meade might not be the deserts of the Middle East, the cyber domain is equally important, if not more so.
“There are vulnerabilities in any system,” said Cpt. Brandon Morris, commander of the 174th Cyber Protection Team. “We’re mitigating the enemy’s ability to affect operations in the cyber domain — both military systems and civilian systems.”
To put it simply, the 174th Cyber Protection Team will be defending the American people on the homefront. Wake up and flip a switch, a light will come on. Turn a lever, water will flow from a faucet. Drive to work, lights change from green to red.
The American way of life.
“This particular unit is composed of skilled professionals in the cyber realm,” Burton explained. “And they do battle with keystrokes.”
According to Morris, the 18 soldiers trained three years to prepare for this deployment.
“As far as the overall technical competence of our team, I can safely say that we are the strongest of all the states,” said Cpt. Kylie Boyle, the senior officer in charge of the 174th Cyber Protection Team. “We specifically focus on defensive cyber operations. There’s a lot of critical infrastructure-hardening.”
The benchmark qualification for cybersecurity operators is the Certified Information Systems Security Professionalism certification, Boyle said. It’s one of the most challenging certifications in information technology. The exam alone is six hours long, so it’s no small feat that every member of the team holds this certification.
Burton said many of the Soldiers left high-paying information technology jobs to deploy.
“You’re paid a lot more in the civilian sector for what you do than what the United States Army can pay you,” he said. “That’s admirable.”