It was 2015 at the height of the fight against ISIS when members of the U.S. military found themselves as online targets of the terror group, their names posted on an ISIS kill list released by the Islamic State Hacking Division.
One of the targets was a San Diego-based U.S. Marine.
Vishal, a weapons systems officer who flew in FA-18's conducting missions in the Middle East against the terror group, agreed to talk to NBC 7 – using only his first name.
“It was a feeling of uncertainty helplessness and confusion of what’s next you know fear for you and your family,” he told NBC 7.
In 2015, the Islamic State had overrun large portions of Northern Iraq and parts of Syria proclaiming a Caliphate.
They were also waging an online battle, threatening to bring the fight to the U.S. by provoking so-called Lone Wolf attacks.
Vishal took steps to keep his family safe, moving from his home and protecting other personal information to protect the people he loved. “There’s family, there’s kids, there’s wives,” the 'human element,' as he calls it, behind that kind of security breach.
Vishal decided to speak out to NBC7 after the Associated Press reported they had uncovered evidence that online threats targeting the wives of military members came from Russian hackers and not from a jihadist with ties to the Islamic State, as was first thought.
Vishal says the revelation only emphasizes the need for people to be aware of cyber threats and security to protect their identity. In the case of the military wives, these cybercriminals clearly knew who they were after. “They're people of influence and that's why they get attacked,” he said, adding, “We think about the cyber threats as this political game and the real victims here are the families.”
And while he loved being in the military, being the target of terrorist threats changed him.
“I've dedicated my life to protecting ... identity.” After retiring from the Marine Corps, he started a cybersecurity business that works with large corporations to help people protect themselves from cybercrime.
“What I do now is try to protect humans within every organization, and that would not have happened if my identity wasn’t breached in the first place," he explained. "I’m passionate about security.”
The man responsible for giving the personal information of members of the military to ISIS fighters was caught in Kosovo.
He pleaded guilty in 2016 and was sentenced today to 20 years in prison for providing material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a designated foreign terrorist organization, and accessing a protected computer without authorization and obtaining information in order to provide material support to ISIS.