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What Mass. workers on ISIS list are doing to stay safe

A flag belonging to Islamic State fighters was seen in March after forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recaptured the city of Palmyra. Reuters/File

A longtime state employee was horrified to learn that she was No. 13 on a hit list published online by a cyber-affiliate of the Islamic State that named more than 100 government workers in Massachusetts last week.

“How would you feel?” asked the woman who — like other state workers on the apparently random list — declined to be named out of fear for safety. “Should I be telling my family? Am I at risk walking down the street? Would [authorities] make the connection if something did happen to me?”

The woman, who works on a state board as a budget and operations manager, complained that state officials did not, in her view, take the threat seriously enough.

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Governor Charlie Baker and law enforcement officials said last week that “there is no credible threat to anyone” and that none of the people named in previous ISIS-affiliated lists in other states have been killed.

Authorities have said that they see the lists as a way for ISIS to sow fear among people in the United States — and to force law enforcement to spend time tracking down those named — but not something likely to result in attacks.

ISIS has issued 10 such “kill lists” since last year, including one three months ago that named 3,600 New Yorkers.

State employees on the list have been notified and offered a resource within the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security if they have questions.

The Massachusetts list published on social media within the ISIS network on July 16 named employees throughout the state, mostly in human resources, fiscal, or budgetary departments. The list and two others naming workers in Rhode Island and Chicago were posted by the group called the United Cyber Caliphate, State Police said. Extremism experts and law enforcement officials said the lists, which ask for ISIS sympathizers to carry out the hits, are designed as scare tactics.

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The original list had 264 names, but officials said many were duplicates, bringing the total to 138 government employees in Massachusetts. The Baker administration has notified those on the list. The FBI is also in the process of reaching out and in some cases will conduct face-to-face notifications.

“We’re working with our state and local partners to make official notifications as quickly as possible,” said Harold H. Shaw, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office.

Some government workers named on the list said the idea of being on a terror group’s hit list gave them pause, but that they’re not too worried about it.

“It reminded me to be vigilant,” said a man who works as a chief fiscal officer for the state. “It seemed odd I was on the list and a long shot that anything would happen.”

The man said he did, however, alert his local police department, which promised to add a patrol car to drive by his home on each shift.

The man shared the news with his wife, but kept it from his children, ages 13 and 17.

“They see a lot on the news that is scary and they could associate this with what they see,” he said. “It would make this seem and feel a whole lot worse.”

Another chief fiscal officer for the state, who works in Boston, said assurances from her boss and Baker’s office helped to put her mind at ease.

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“It’s obviously not ideal,” she said of being named. But she said, “you have to continue on with your day. The goal of these things is to scare people; you have to not change your life.”

In an e-mail sent to state agencies last week, Daniel Bennett, secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, sought to assure state workers that the list did not pose a credible threat.

“The safety of the people of Massachusetts and of course the safety of those employed by state and county government is the top priority of the Baker-Polito administration,” he wrote.

“State Public Safety officials are working with the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and other federal officials to closely monitor the situation.”

Bennett called the Massachusetts list random and said it was probably pulled from an open source on the Internet.

J. M. Berger, a fellow with the George Washington University Program on Extremism and a co-author of the book “ISIS: The State of Terror,” said that some of the information appears to match a contact mailing list on the state’s Office of the Comptroller website.

But authorities have said they do not yet know where the names came from.

Law enforcement officials say they are working to dial back some of the panic the lists have caused.

“We understand the anxiety created by being named on a list like this, and that fear, in and of itself, is an outcome that ISIS wants to achieve,” said David Procopio, spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, which is also aiding in the investigation.

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Procopio said the Fusion Center, a multiagency office designed to share information about terrorism and public safety, received calls last week from a woman whose husband was on the list and from state agencies curious about whether any of their employees were named.

“Terrorist organizations are utilizing this tactic of putting out names to generate fear within the public,” Shaw said. “Based on our experience and previous notifications made to other individuals across the United States, none of these threats have been substantiated.”

Still the FBI and other law enforcement officials must spend time investigating the lists and their origin, an effort that ultimately ties up resources.

Shaw said: “These are the same resources we’re using to try to find people who commit terrorist acts.”

Meanwhile, the woman who works for a state board said officials should do more to ensure that those named can have their questions addressed.

“I’m not used to this as a private citizen,” said the woman, who told her husband she was named but kept the secret from her three adult children. “I feel totally unprotected.”


Jan Ransom can be reached at jan.ransom@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.