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Russian Hackers Posed as Islamic State for Cyber-Attacks on US Military Wives

News Brief

A cyber-attack on the wives of American troops that was originally thought to have been orchestrated by the self-styled Islamic State was actually carried out by hackers linked to the Russian intelligence services, an investigation has revealed.

Five women married to U.S. military personnel reported receiving threats from a group calling itself the “CyberCaliphate” in early 2015, including one message wishing the recipient a “Bloody Valentine’s Day.” The purported Islamic State hackers claimed to know everything about them, and the story got wide coverage in the U.S. media at the time.

But the Associated Press has uncovered evidence that they were really Russian operatives posing as Islamic State militants. And the hackers are thought to be part of the so-called “Fancy Bear” or “APT28” group linked to Russian military intelligence, which is believed to have played a key role in efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Angela Ricketts, who is married to a U.S. serviceman and is also an advocate for veterans and military families, was sent a message over Facebook in February 2015 that read “Dear Angela! Bloody Valentine’s day.” Other messages claimed they had access to her computer and phone. “We know everything about you, your husband and your children.”

Ricketts was widely interviewed at the time.

“Never in a million years did I think that it was the Russians,” she said when contacted by the AP this week. “It feels so hilarious and insidious at the same time.”

Campaigns by groups of other Russian trolls, some linked to a St. Petersburg-based troll farm, regularly work to keep news about the threat of Islamic extremism in headlines.

“Not only did we play right into their hands by freaking out, but the media played right into it,” Ricketts told the AP. “We reacted in a way that was probably exactly what they were hoping for.”