Army wife Angela Ricketts was soaking in a bubble bath in her Colorado home, leafing through a memoir, when a message appeared on her iPhone from hackers threatening to slaughter her family. "Dear Angela!" the Facebook message read. "Bloody Valentine's Day!" Ricketts was one of five military wives who received death threats from the self-styled CyberCaliphate on the morning of Feb. 10, 2015. The warnings led to days of anguished media coverage of ISIS militants' online reach. Except it wasn't ISIS. The AP has found evidence that the women were targeted not by jihadists but by the same Russian hacking group that intervened in the American election and exposed the emails of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign chairman, John Podesta.
The operation's attempt to hype the threat of radical Islam presaged the inflammatory messages pushed by online trolls during the US presidential race. Links between CyberCaliphate and the Russian hackers—typically nicknamed Fancy Bear or APT28—have been documented previously. On both sides of the Atlantic, the consensus is that the two groups are closely related. But that consensus never filtered through to the women involved, many of whom were convinced they had been targeted by ISIS sympathizers right up until the AP contacted them. "Never in a million years did I think that it was the Russians," says Ricketts, an author and advocate for veterans and military families. She calls the revelation "mind blowing."
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