Over the last 28 years, United States Marine Corps Brigadier General Len Anderson (STC ’93) has graduated from the Navy’s premier fighter pilot TOPGUN training school, participated in NATO-led airstrikes that helped end the Bosnian War, flown combat sorties over southern Iraq, and performed gravity-defying aerial moves with the Blue Angels precision flying team at airshows nationwide.
As if that’s not enough, he also spent several years in Hollywood pursuing his lifelong interest in acting, landing roles in action-adventure flicks such as Captain Phillips and 13 Hours, and the television show The Brink.
Today, Anderson leads a team of about 250 Marines, other military personnel, and civilian cyber experts in battling the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As deputy commanding general of Joint Task Force ARES under U.S. Cyber Command, Anderson and his team have provided intelligence to coalition forces in combat, and they have reduced the quantity and quality of ISIS media, which has disrupted and degraded the extremist group’s influence and power. For his efforts, Anderson was honored with an Illinois Tech 2020 Professional Achievement Award.
“His professional journey has never been done before and will most likely never be repeated,” says longtime friend and former Illinois Tech fraternity brother Brian Ippolito (AE ’92), president and CEO of Orbis Technologies, Inc. “In short, General Anderson is an inspiration—he knows no fear and believes anyone can do anything. He is proof that morals, hard work, education, and passion are the ingredients to success.”
What role did ARES play in destroying the ISIS caliphate?
When U.S. Cyber Command stood up our Joint Task Force in 2016, the Islamic State was winning the information battle. Using ubiquitous technology like cell phones and internet access, they were demoralizing Iraqi troops, recruiting adherents from afar, and inspiring global jihad. JTF-ARES was part of the U.S. military’s solution to fight the Islamic State’s global information system. Our approach leveraged both physical and informational aspects of military power in close coordination with other joint, interagency, and allied forces. Through relentless, combined application of physical and informational power—within and outside the combat zone—we were able to reduce the quantity and quality of Islamic State media, which in turn degraded their ability to coordinate with and gain new followers. We also provided support for kinetic strikes and ground maneuvers.
How does your ARES team disrupt ISIS’s funding and recruiting?
ISIS depends on an international network of enablers, supporters, and affiliated groups as its proto-state has crumbled. We identify and disrupt the operations of their enabler networks, such as their propaganda and logistics support capabilities. Their physical defeat was accelerated because the Joint Task Force either helped remove resources that sustained Islamic State combat forces or identified connections between those forces and their supporters that could be used to create internal strife in the organization.
Think of all the things that drive you crazy about today's technology—slow downloads, dropped connections, access denied, program glitches. Now imagine how it the ISIS forces would feel with these kinds of problems. In some instances, we’ve created tension between ISIS media members who’ve spent days editing videos only to see their final release and distribution fail. Creating confusion from the inside out can really impact their credibility and reputation, which leads to less support and less followers.
Has any of your military cybersecurity work translated into improved cybersecurity in the civilian sector?
While my task force is focused on operations against violent extremist organizations, there’s not a day that goes by where we don’t learn something new about cyberspace or information operations. We work closely with mission partners, which include federal cybersecurity organizations, to share our technical and tradecraft lessons learned.
I think the most important trend I’ve seen after overseeing JTF-ARES operations is phishing and poor cybersecurity hygiene continue to be top vectors for compromised computer networks. You wouldn’t believe how often hackers find usernames and passwords in unprotected locations. For example, one of the most common errors that humans make is using the same password for everything. Unfortunately, hackers can go into accounts and put in password 1-2-3 or 1-2-3-4 and open up a lot of them.
[Another thing to consider] is the internet of things. Thirty billion devices are on the internet, [such as] your refrigerator, thermostat, all those things that connect to the internet have a basic password that comes from the manufacturer. If you buy a Nest thermostat, it comes with a basic password. As you set it up, if you don’t change that password—and a majority of people don’t—then the hacker now has that because he knows what the basic Nest password is. If you’re not changing things after you purchase them and connect them to the internet, that particular device has an IP address that can conduct attacks, denial of service attacks, that can be used to obfuscate what a hacker is doing online. As you bring these devices into the home, the average person needs to consider: What strangers would I bring into my house and let them have access to the video camera that’s watching my children. You have to make sure that’s secure. That’s where we see a lot of our errors in personal security.
California is instituting regulations that companies cannot send out devices with generic passwords; they have to come pre-packaged with individual passwords that are already built in to reduce human error. They’re the first state to do this. I think it should have nationwide adoption soon.
How and when did you get into acting?
My interest in acting began early on growing up in Duluth, Minnesota. I was involved with the local community theater during the summers, with roles in Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, Pippen, and others. I made my first $75 doing a school bus safety commercial, and I thought I had made it in Hollywood at that point.
What role(s) are you most proud of? Why are the roles your favorite?
You know, any of the roles I had in real Hollywood productions are my favorite. Getting work in Hollywood is not easy. I got off the plane at LAX, rented a car, and started looking for work with zero connections. I thought the Marine Corps was tough—this business is tough. So many driven people with talent auditioning for the same roles. I was fortunate to meet some good friends along the way, to include the producer Dana Brunetti who is a Coast Guard veteran and supporter of all military veterans. Dana gave me a couple of opportunities that spawned work in other films and TV shows. I would say the most demoralizing moment for me was auditioning for a role described as “Marine aviator” in the film Avatar. I didn’t get hired.
Do you think you’ll give Hollywood another shot after you retire someday?
I think so. I really enjoy the creative part of it. I’m a consumer of good movies, not necessarily comic book movies. I love the dark, gritty independent movies, something with a good story. While I was out there, I had plenty of time waiting between audition calls from my agent so I read scripts of things that were getting financed and I just couldn’t believe the garbage that’s getting made. Some of that frustration turned into…writing a few screenplays, pitches. They still bubble around. So, I’d see myself more on the writing side or creating my own media or type of movie. That’s more challenging to me.
Can you describe a few highlights of your career as a naval and Marine aviator?
Let me get this off my chest: I joined the ROTC unit at Illinois Tech because of the movie Top Gun. To attend that same course a decade later was a significant moment for me; I had to pinch myself. It really is the best school on the planet for fighter pilots and is incredibly challenging. I was just happy to graduate. However, there is nothing better than your first fighter squadron, and that for me was the VMFA-312 “Fabulous Checkerboards” out of Beaufort, South Carolina. Our squadron has deployed from the aircraft carrier in time of conflict, and I was able to share that with my grandfathers who served in the Navy during World War II.
While going to flight school, I had seen the Blue Angels perform over Pensacola Beach and thought that it looked like a pretty good job…again, I was very lucky to be selected for the team and have flown demonstrations across the country. During the Chicago [Air and Water] Show, the Illinois Tech campus was just under the airspace we utilized. I was able to fly over Pi Kappa Phi, with my fraternity brothers waving from the roof. It was another moment I will not forget. My lifelong friends are from Illinois Tech and Pi Kappa Phi. I didn’t think that 30 years later we would still be in touch and sharing holidays together. But we do.
I read that you are a pilot for FedEx Express. Do you currently fly their planes?
FedEx Express has been a fantastic company for me to work for as I continue my reserve officer career. Over the last 14 years, I have mobilized multiple times, taking time away from the company to contribute to national security. Each time I come back to FedEx, I get current in the airplane I am assigned to and get back to moving boxes. The logistics of that company every night is beyond compare. Before my current position with JTF-ARES, I was a Boeing 757 captain with FedEx; my favorite route was usually into Central and South America—Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama, beautiful countries to fly in. I have not flown in two years during my current military mobilization and always look forward to getting back to Memphis and working with those professionals.
What are your fondest memories from your student days?
The ROTC unit was by far the most impactful for me. It is an immediate support network to ensure you are focused and not losing sight of the goal of a commission in the military service. I actually started out as Navy, but as soon as I met the Marines of the ROTC unit, I knew I was in the wrong service for me. I switched to the Marine Corps that same year. I also remember my late-night disc jockey efforts on the school radio station. I didn’t have the best time slot, and I am sure nobody was tuning in to listen to The Doors at four in the morning.
Illinois Tech reached out to me in the small town of Duluth to offer me a first-year scholarship to assist with the three-year ROTC scholarship I had been awarded. I love the outdoors and I’m an avid fisherman. Quite honestly, before I had [this offer], I thought I was going to be a fishing guide in northern Minnesota the rest of my life. Without this offer from Illinois Tech, none of this would have been possible. I am forever grateful. The academics were challenging. I soon realized I had sort of coasted through high school and needed to get serious about my education. Illinois Tech held that standard and the courses fit my interests and prepared me for the technical aspect of flying. At the time, I studied Science and Technology in Context, a fancy way of saying, “not an engineer.” The curriculum was perfect for me.