A Salisbury television station appeared to be the latest victim of the online skirmishing in the Syrian conflict Tuesday after a hacker sympathetic to the terror group the Islamic State hijacked its Twitter feed and website.
"INFIDELS, NEW YEAR WILL MAKE YOU SUFFER," read one tweet from the commandeered account. Its profile picture was replaced by an image of a masked man and text reading: "CyberCaliphate … i love you isis."
ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the most prominent rebel group in the Syrian civil war, has taken over large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. On the ground, the group is fighting with guns, bombs and beheadings, but ISIS, the Syrian government and the hacker collective Anonymous have also taken the fight online.
News organizations have long been targets in the conflict. But previous victims have been outlets with global reach, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post — not local TV stations such as WBOC, which bills itself as "Delmarva's news leader."
The Albuquerque Journal newspaper confirmed that it was the victim of a similar hack Tuesday after its Twitter page was taken over in a similar fashion. By Tuesday evening, the newspaper had regained control over its accounts, but the WBOC Twitter account still appeared to be in the hackers' hands.
WBOC had a relatively modest 18,200 followers on Twitter as of Tuesday morning, and the Journal had a similar number, but the attacks helped start an online conversation around the tag #CyberCaliphate.
At its early medieval height, the caliphate was an Islamic empire that stretched across northern Africa and the Middle East. The Islamic State has said that its goal is to restore it.
But WBOC manager Craig Jahelka said he was at a loss as to why his station and a paper thousands of miles away had both fallen victim to hackers claiming allegiance to the group.
"We can't find any connection that is apparent between Salisbury and Albuquerque," he said.
Postings linked to the hacked accounts claimed ISIS sympathizers had stolen documents from the FBI. Files that resembled law enforcement information bulletins were posted to the WBOC account and a Facebook page, and a message on a text dumping site provided links to more supposed FBI files.
FBI headquarters did not respond to questions about any theft of its files, but an FBI spokeswoman in Baltimore confirmed that the agency was investigating the WBOC attack.
Jahelka said the TV station and investigators were trying to figure out how the attackers might have entered its system. He said four accounts with the ability to post to the station's website were compromised.
The Albuquerque Journal was first attacked before Christmas, according to its IT director, and its Twitter feed and Facebook page were vandalized Tuesday. The Journal's owner said its servers had not been broken into, but IT director Monty Midyette said it appeared that an old subscriber list had been taken from a breached email account.
Midyette said the attackers came in through the front door using a user name and password, which suggested that an employee had been the victim of a type of attack known as phishing. That involves sending a link to an innocent-looking page that is designed to harvest login information.
It was unclear Tuesday who might have been behind the attack.
Someone set up a Twitter account under the name Cyber Caliphate with the same profile image of the masked man that was applied to the hacked news accounts, but it offered no clues as to the hacker's identity.
A well-known online activist with ties to the Islamic State said in a Twitter post that the group behind Tuesday's attacks merely supported ISIS but had no official links to it.
Evan Blair, whose Baltimore security company ZeroFOX has been monitoring the Islamic State's online progress, said it appeared the attackers were part of a newer offshoot or splinter group of ISIS.
"ISIS is a major abuser of social media to spread their propaganda, recruit members and pass on attack target information," he said.
The Islamic State's foes have also been active on social media and in waging cyber attacks — and news organizations have been caught in the crossfire before.
A group loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, against whom the Islamic State is fighting, claimed responsibility for the attacks on The Post and The Times in 2013, and then claimed another round of hacks last November.
In a post on its website, the group said it was retaliating against websites that reported that the regime had killed civilians in an airstrike.
The group said that the victims were in fact Islamic State terrorists.
"We confirm that we are going forward in the fight against false reports about the situation in our country," the group said.
One of the posts linked to by the hijacked WBOC account promised more mayhem to come.
"In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful, the CyberCaliphate continues its CyberJihad," it read. "From this day on you will look around more often, will call up your children more often, think of your security more often but that won't help you."