A new report by the British government alleges that the so-called ‘Cyber Caliphate’, the online hacker wing of the Islamic State, is one of several supposedly non-state groups that are in fact operated by the Russian state.
The group calling itself Cyber Caliphate first appeared in early 2014, purporting to operate as the online wing of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which was later renamed Islamic State. Today the Cyber Caliphate boasts a virtual army of hackers from dozens of countries, who are ostensibly operating as the online arm of the Islamic State. Their known activities include a strong and often concentrated social media presence, as well as computer hacking, primarily in the form of cyber espionage and cyber sabotage.
But an increasing number of reports, primarily by Western government agencies, have claimed in recent years that the Cyber Caliphate is in fact part of a Russian state-sponsored operation, ingeniously conceived to permit Moscow to hack Western targets without retaliation. On Wednesday, a new report by Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) described the Cyber Caliphate and other similar hacker groups as “flags of convenience” for the Kremlin. The report was authored by the NCSC in association with several British and European intelligence agencies. American spy agencies, including the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, also helped compile the report, according to the NCSC. The report names several hacker groups that have been implicated in high-profile attacks in recent years, including Sofacy, Pawnstorm, Sednit, Cyber Berkut, Voodoo Bear, BlackEnergy Actors, Strontium, Tsar Team, and Sandworm. Each of these, claims the NCSC report, is “an alias of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces”, more commonly known as the GRU. The report concludes that Cyber Caliphate is the same hacker group as APT 28, Fancy Bear, and Pawn Storm, three cyber espionage outfits that are believed to be online arms of the GRU.
The NCSC report echoes the conclusion of a German government report that was leaked to the media in June of 2016, which argued that the Cyber Caliphate was a fictitious front group created by Russia. In 2015, a security report by the US State Department concluded that despite the Cyber Caliphate’s proclamations of connections to the Islamic State, there were “no indications —technical or otherwise— that the groups are tied”. In a statement issued alongside the NCSC report on Wednesday, Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Jeremy Hunt, described the GRU as Moscow’s “chosen clandestine weapon in pursuing its geopolitical goals”. The Russian government has denied these allegations.