Russian military intelligence agents launched a 2015 cyber attack on UK-based TV station the Islam Channel, giving the Kremlin-backed hackers complete control over the broadcaster’s computer networks and infrastructure.
According to the station, the effects of the attack, launched in July of that year, lasted for around five months as cyber specialists from British intelligence battled to clear the Russian hackers from its systems.
“They had complete control,” said a spokesperson for the channel. “They could see everything we were doing. For many weeks we couldn’t send or receive emails. We felt powerless.”
The Islam Channel, which claims to be watched by millions of Muslims in the UK, says it also streams its programmes into Russia and central Asia. “We have high numbers of Russians following us,” said the spokesperson.
Details of the attack come after the Dutch, US and UK governments launched a transatlantic offensive against Vladimir Putin’s espionage activities this week, accusing the GRU of a series of brazen cyber attacks around the world.
On Thursday, hours before the Dutch authorities disclosed how they had foiled a Russian state plot to hack the international chemical weapons watchdog, Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre released details of six attacks they attributed to the GRU.
Included on the list was an attack between July and August 2015 that targeted and accessed “multiple email accounts belonging to a small UK-based TV station” leading to content being stolen.
British officials have confirmed to the Financial Times that the broadcaster targeted in the attack was the Islam Channel, a 24-hour, free-to-air broadcaster based in Ilford in the eastern suburbs of London, but which transmits its programmes to Europe, Africa and Asia.
It was founded in 2004 by Mohamed Ali Harrath, a Tunisia-born activist and businessman who was awarded substantial libel damages in 2017 by the High Court in London over a false terrorism allegation.
The spokesperson for the Islam Channel said senior executives had been completely unaware of the attack until they were notified by government officials.
“The Home Office originally contacted us,” said the spokesperson. “They then put us in touch with another agency which informed us there was a cyber attack on our IT infrastructure.
“They told us this was not an amateur hacker, it was at state level, but without telling us the name of the state. They came quite a few times and did a lot of work. It took a good few months to counter the attack.”
The motives for attacking the small broadcaster remain unclear. One theory is that the hack was part of a cyber campaign the GRU mounted at the time against Europe-based media companies and TV companies.
A few months before it hit the Islam Channel, the GRU’s attack group, named this week by western intelligence agencies as Unit 26165, launched a devastating cyber attack on the French broadcaster TV5 Monde.
The attack took the broadcaster off air in April 2015 and was claimed by a group called the Cyber Caliphate, which said it had links to Isis. An investigation later revealed it to be a “false flag” attack that was carried out by Russia.
Another possible explanation is that Russia’s cyber warriors were using small, weaker targets for training purposes in preparation for attacks against bigger international organisations and companies.
“They [the UK government] didn’t tell us why we were targeted,” said the Islam Channel spokesperson. “We just don’t know. We are a small TV station. Why did they attack us?”