Puerto Ricans’ Names on List as Possible ISIS Targets
SAN JUAN — What would you do if an FBI agent knocked on your door and told you that your name is included on a terrorist group’s list of possible targets?
This is precisely the reality of five Puerto Rican citizens whose personal information is part of what is known as a “kill list”: a list of targets to be killed compiled by malicious hackers linked to the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group.
One of those people is a U.S. Air Force veteran who lives in Caguas. The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Caribbean Business that two Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) agents went looking for him at his ex-wife’s home Tuesday, Aug. 2. When they failed to find him there, the agents contacted the man over the phone and agreed to meet him at a nearby bakery.
“As soon as I got to the bakery, one agent showed me his ID and told me he was the bearer of bad news. I asked what he meant and he told me that my name was on a kill list. He said they [the FBI] has systems that scan different media, and my name had appeared on that list. He told me to protect myself and if I saw anything strange, I should contact the [Puerto Rico] police, who was already aware of the matter, or call the FBI,” said the veteran about his brief conversation with the agents.
Meanwhile, the spokesman for the FBI in Puerto Rico, Special Agent Carlos Osorio, told Caribbean Business that the agency had identified five formerPuerto Rican members of the armed forces, all male, on a kill list linked to IS and that they were all alerted to the situation.
“The lists are huge and they do exist. These are lists intended to create panic. They send us these lists, and if the names of Puerto Rican citizens appear [on them], it is our duty to notify them. The list is called a ‘kill list,’ but it does not mean that someone will kill anyone,” Osorio said while acknowledging that this is the first time that Puerto Ricans’ names are included on this type of list.
In June, SITE Intelligence Group, a non-governmental organization that monitors jihadist communications channels, released a report that analyzes eight kill lists compiled by three groups of hackers who support IS. The lists were published on the internet—mainly on Twitter and encrypted messaging applications such as Telegram—between March and May and contain personal information of thousands of U.S. citizens.
Analysis shows that the groups—identified as the Caliphate Cyber Army (CCA), the Islamic State Hacking Division (ISHD) and the United Cyber Caliphate (UCC)—are looking for three types of targets to compile their lists: members of the military, federal government and state employees, and random civilians.
Osorio said the FBI could not reveal which of these three groups released the list where the five formerPuerto Rican members of the military appeared. He also noted that the federal agency “cannot deny or confirm” if it has information about IS sympathizers living in Puerto Rico.
Initially, the kill lists only included information on government employees and members of the armed forces. However, the UCC published the names of 3,600 civilian New Yorkers for the first time on April 21. Since then, the same group released two other lists of civilians, according to SITE.
Intimidate and Distract
Prosecutor Rafael Sosa Arvelo, director of the Puerto Rico Justice Department’s Cybercrime Research Unit, explained that the kill lists have been available for a year or so, and that they feed on information available on the internet. Sosa Arvelo also stressed that so far no one whose information has appeared on those lists has fallen victim to an attack.
“At the end of the day, these terrorist groups want to instill fear in society. It is not known if a person on the list has been the subject of an attack directed at them. But it certainly causes fear. It is a point of debate among the community if this represents damage or not. So far, no damage has been caused to a person on that list but their personal data is definitely there,” the prosecutor said.
Meanwhile, José Quiñones, who is a hacker and president of Obsidis Consortia, a nonprofit organization, said the lists are prepared using a technique known as open source intelligence, which is basically gaining access to information that was published by the user itself on different platforms.
“Traditionally, these lists are focused on attacking government employees, members of the military, law enforcement, policemen [and] firemen because they know the impact will be greater there. They do this to let the average person know that the group is there to defend them, since they are helpless. It has a psychological impact on the public. It makes people wonder, ‘If the one who is supposed to protect me is being attacked, who is supposed to protect me?’ They [the hackers] are intent on creating panic [and] despair,” Quiñones said.
The expert also noted that the creation of these lists could also respond to a strategy aimed at distracting authorities. “In the world of cyber-security, misdirection is frequently used, which is to say, ‘I will perpetrate this attack here so that while you tend to that little crisis, I will be attacking the real target.’ The attackers’ advantage is that they know their target,” Quiñones noted.
“The person receiving the threat is the one who must regard them as valid and investigate. Only the attacker knows exactly what he will do. The person protecting himself is always at a disadvantage against the attacker. These are techniques used in all cybersecurity fronts,” he added.
Developments like this one go to show that, in this globalized reality, fragmented by the digital era, terrorism is no longer a regional issue distant to our environment, but rather an immediate threat in a world that fits in the palm of one’s hand and is wielded with mere fingertips.