There's a rather normal looking office building inside St. Peterburg's Olgino historic district which, by all outside appearances, looks to be nothing special. Aside from a "for rent" sign in the window, you could easily miss it, but not long ago this office building was the command center for a massive information warfare targeting the U.S. election.
It's from this nondescript office where Yevginy Prigozhin, also known as "Putin's Chef," is alleged to have directed Russia's Internet Research Agency - the company recently indicted for engaging in one of the most sophisticated information warfare campaigns in modern history. Using a combination of intelligence gathering, social media, and internet manipulation, Prigozhin, his agency, twelve other Russians and two other organizations are believed to have sown political discord in the U.S. for years. And they did it all for $1.25 million a month.
"The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States," said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein while announcing the indictment on Friday. "With the stated goal of spreading distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general."
The agency's activities were most pronounced just prior to the November 2016 election, but those actions were just the culmination of an operation years in the making. The Internet Research Agency was formally registered as a business in Russia in 2013. It was headed by Prigozhin, a restaurant mogul whose various businesses and catering company are a favorite of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"All of the trolls knew that it's Prigozhin who stands behind all this. But nobody had any evidence," said former Internet Research Agency employee Marat Mindiyarov in an interview with the Associated Press.
According to the indictment, the funding for the agency was funneled through Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering, two of Prigozhin's businesses. Payments labeled for software support and development services were also well hidden via a network of 14 bank accounts.
In fact, the entire operation was quite sophisticated. Internet Research Agency was divided into various departments, including graphics, data analysis, search engine optimization and information technology. The company employed hundreds of people who were directed to create "political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements."
But before Internet Research Agency unleashed its trolls, it conducted thorough research starting in 2014. Employees began learning all they could about the U.S. political system, including what organizations and movements to target. Some of them even took trips to the U.S. to engage in intelligence collection.
After falsifying information on visa applications, agency employees Aleksandra Yuryevna Krylova and Anna Vladislavovna Bogacheva boarded a plane in early June 2014 and started a cross country tour of the U.S. which included visits to Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, and New York. They spent most of the month learning all they could.
By posing as Americans, agency employees were able to collect intelligence information from U.S. persons who were none the wiser as to their intentions. These individuals told the trolls to target politically contentious "purple states" like Colorado, Virginia, Florida.
As election season approached, the organization put what it had learned to use and became increasingly brazen. The orders were clear, according to the indictment: "Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump -- we support them)." Members of the company's "translator project" began targeting social media. According to Mindiyarov, these trolls were the best of the best.
"These were people with excellent language skills, interpreters, university graduates," said Mindiyarov. "[When they write comment] It's very hard to tell it's a foreigner writing because they master the language wonderfully."
These 80 or so individuals used fake social media personas, and sometimes stolen profiles, to appear like American grassroots activists. They created groups on hot-button topics like immigration, Black Lives Matter, and religion, eventually gathering hundreds of thousands of followers. They boosted their visibility by purchasing Facebook ads. Approximately 126 million Americans may have been exposed to the ads and other propaganda, according to a Facebook estimate.
"It was the Facebook department, that's where all the translators and people who spoke foreign languages worked," said Mindiyarov. "And they were the ones to deal with Facebook and now we're reading about how they went to the United States and did whatever they did there."
The campaign continued after the election. According to Rosenstein, Internet Research Agency even orchestrated both a pro-Trump and anti-Trump rally after Trump's victory.
Despite Internet Research Agency's wide-ranging activities, Rosenstein noted it is part of a larger operation known as "Project Lakhta." In fact, some U.S. officials are expecting Russia to engage in a similar campaign in the 2018 elections.
Circa's Justin Covington contributed to this report.