“In 21st century international defense, just as with diplomacy, economics, and culture- information is a very powerful currency,” said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Lapthe C. Flora, commander, Combined Joint Task Force- Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). “It is shared, protected or lost to great effect.”
United States soldiers assigned to CJTF- HOA, French Soldiers assigned to the French Forces Djibouti (FFDJ), and Djiboutian soldiers assigned to the Armed Forces of Djibouti (FAD), participated in a four-day cyber defense and interoperability engagement to build the cyber defense capabilities of the three partner nations at the Sheraton Hotel, Djibouti, Feb. 14-17, 2021.
The purpose of the joint engagement was to ensure that the nations are better capable of sharing info with each other both securely and efficiently.
“We care about all of our partner’s information security and want to be supportive of their information protection efforts,” said U.S. Army Maj. Jake Day, the special technical operations chief, CJTF- HOA.
“The inception of this event began around August 2020 with three main questions,” said Day. “What messages do we [CJTF-HOA] send, what do we want to achieve in east Africa, and what’s missing?”
“We decided that in the world of communications across international boundaries there’s a big gap. We didn’t organically have the tools to close the gap, but we knew who to call,” Day continued.
With the help of the United States Africa Command (US AFRICOM), which CJTF-HOA falls under, Day and his team were able to start making the vision a reality.
Insert, the 200 Cyber Protection Team (CPT) from Fort Gordon, GA., which is one of two teams that are operationally controlled by US AFRICOM in support of defensive cyberspace. The team would be tasked with leading 27 participants from three different nations in the cyber defense engagement.
Of course, with a multinational event, other teams would need to be involved. Members assigned to the Civil Affairs East Africa, Security Forces Assistance Brigade (SFAB) and the Mission Essential Personnel (MEP) unit in support of CJTF-HOA would provide various French and Somali linguists to help with translations prior to the event and on site during the four-day engagement.
Other teams included COMCYBER, a French parallel to the United State’s cyber protection team, and the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti which also authorized the event and helped coordinate. The day before the event, the 200 CPT members along with the members supporting the event as linguists gathered at the Sheraton for set up and initial introductions.
“The event will be structured over four days of academic type classes,” said U.S. Army Maj. Justin Hawker, team lead of the 200 CPT. “It will be a lot of hands on learning as well for the soldiers.”
Utilizing open source resources, the 200 CPT focused day one and two on host analysis while day three and four focused on network analysis.
“We went through the basic host tools for Windows systems and worked on basic commands,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Juan Felix, a systems analyst with the 200 CPT. “Then we went more in depth on how to use the free tools for Windows systems to detect malicious activities.”
The team was able to mimic a network by using Security Onion as a type of router in between the Windows computer and Kali Linux, an open source operating system, used for offensive operations.
“The whole purpose is so that they can use tools to analyze the processes and recognize if there’s any tools in their own networks to see if something is acting weird. These tools aren’t actually cyber tools, but we take advantage of our knowledge of cyber defense and use them to actually detect malicious activities,” said Felix.
For Cpt. Amina Abdillahi Mahamoud, a telecommunication engineer with the FAD, host analysis proved helpful as her job places her in charge of FAD network services which covers various equipment that are vulnerable to attacks.
“My favorite part was the first two days because we went over the different commands that show us how to better protect our equipment,” said Mahamoud. “At the same time, we learned how to use the software to detect attack and trace the source destination of malicious activities and delete it.”
Not only did the engagement allow the participants to improve their cyber defense skills, but they also had the invaluable opportunity to collaborate with different nations’ forces.
“This type of event is important for two reasons,” said FFDJ Maj. Edouard Martin, a communications officer for the French Headquarters. “One because the cyber threat is a very important threat today and the second reason is because it is a good opportunity to work with American and Djiboutian forces.”
“I think that this is one of those engagements that everybody can wrap their head around,” said U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Joel Nelson, the signal (communications) project plans non-commission officer in charge assigned to CJTF- HOA. “This is an easy win for everyone to take a week away from their day to day work and really talk about skillsets and about cultivating a culture when it comes to security. Not necessarily just how do we do it but also how they do it, and then uplift each other.”
The engagement ended with a closing ceremony Feb. 18, 2021, to acknowledge the 27 participants for their hard work and efforts. While the four-day engagement marked the first step in the right direction, it won’t be the last.
“As partners, we are better prepared to defend against those with harmful intent than alone,” said Flora. “I am proud to have committed the time of our Service Members to this effort. I am proud to have witnessed that we are better able to support one another than before this exchange. And I am most proud to know that this is not a closing ceremony, but a beginning one, as we continue to find ways to improve our information and secure these skills together from this day forward.”