Assad’s secret digital army

By Theresa Breuer on September 10th, 2013

They don’t walk around carrying machine guns, they don’t torture their adversaries in dungeons and they don’t kidnap foreigners. Their victims are machines, and they hijack something just as important in war: the news.

In a hyper-networked world in which information, photos and videos spread like wildfire, winning hearts and minds internationally can be a potent tool of war, particularly in a complex conflict such as those currently being waged across the Middle East.

A group that calls itself the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) has been waging an online offensive against anyone critical of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. In the past few months, they have been able to hack major news websites.

The New York Times, Al Jazeera, Reuters, and the Washington Post have been among the group’s victims as well as Harvard University, Human Rights Watch and the satirical news website The Onion.

This is propaganda as practised in the internet age: mischievous, disruptive and powered by loose coalitions of brilliant young hackers.

Screenshot of Harvard University's homepage after being hacked by the SEA.

Screenshot of Harvard University’s homepage after being hacked by the SEA.

Not even the Twitter account of the BBC Weather channel has been safe from the hackers’ attempts to spread their message. “Long Live #Syria Al-Assad #SEA”, they posted when they hacked the account in March.

For about an hour, they flooded the site with wry political statements masked as weather forecasts: “Tsunami alert for Haifa: Residents are advised to return to Poland”, or: “Chaotic weather forecast for Lebanon as the government decides to distance itself from the Milky Way”.

They didn’t even cringe at calling the leader of one Middle Eastern state overweight: “Earthquake warning for Qatar: Hamad Bin Khalifah about to exit vehicle.”

SEA hacked BBC twitter account

Hijacking the BBC Weather channel’s Twitter account seems like a joke. But another hack shows that the SEA has the potential to cause real damage.

In April, the group hacked the Twitter account of Associated Press, tweeting: “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured.” AP has over two million followers on Twitter, so it only took a couple of seconds until the false information was spread all over the internet.

Even though AP froze its account immediately, the Dow Jones had already dropped by 70 points.

If that scares you, it should. Though it’s worth pointing out that even the SEA has itself been victim to hacking from unknown quarters.

Earlier this year, someone gained access to an SEA agent’s Dropbox feed and leaked pictures of the operative’s genitals, which he had taken with his smartphone and presumably had automatically uploaded to the cloud.

Online offensive

The latest attack happened last week, when the SEA hacked into the website of the United States Marine Corps. “Dear US Marines”, they wrote on the website, “this is a message written by your brothers in the Syrian Army, who have been fighting Al Qaeda for the past three years.”

They asked Marines to understand the group’s love for Syria, and they called Barack Obama a traitor “who wants to put your lives in danger to rescue Al Qaeda insurgents”. Underneath the message the SEA posted pictures, allegedly showing American soldiers who were holding up signs stating: “I didn’t join the Navy to fight for Al Qaeda in a Syrian civil war.”

SEA hacked Marines website

The SEA first appeared in May 2011, shortly after the civil war in Syria began. They brag about having hacked more than 130 websites since, planting Assad’s propaganda there. Who they are remains unknown, but they claim to be a group of young Syrian computer experts and graphic designers.

Someone who goes by the name “Th3 Pr0″ has explained the SEA’s objective in several interviews. “Our mission is to defend our proud and beloved country Syria against a bloody media war that has been waged against her,” he says.

According to the SEA, everything international media organisations publish about Syria is a bunch of lies and fabricated news. The army of hackers also denies the fact that a popular uprising started the civil war, but argue that it’s a “foreign-backed armed insurrection“, run by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Provenance

They deny being affiliated with the Assad regime. “We don’t give any information about any activists to the Syrian government,” Unless, as Th3 Pr0 puts it, “FSA activists are planning on setting a bomb off or killing or kidnapping anyone.”

The evidence suggests otherwise.

Experts have reported that the SEA can be traced back to the Syrian Computer Society, an organisation founded by Assad himself, which is now responsible for the allocation of Syrian internet domains.

According to the New York Times, some members of the state-related Syrian Computer Society are also self-proclaimed cyber warriors.

Official twitter account of the SEA

Official twitter account of the SEA

Vandalism and voyeurism

Syrian activist Tareq al-Jazairi claims that hackers working for the SEA earn between $500 and $1,000 a month. According to Jazairi, most of them are based in Syria and Dubai, but they get support from experts in Russia.

Assad’s opponents also suspect that the SEA’s defacement of websites is just a front for a deeper surveillance campaign: what the hackers really want, they say, is to spy on activists.

They do so by planting “Trojans”, programs disguised as Skype encryption software that are able to read keystrokes – that is, monitor what is being typed on a computer and report it back to the hacker.

The Assad regime can use this information to hunt down opponents.

Dlshad Othman, a Syrian hacker exiled in Washington D.C., is certain that this has already happened. He reports that last year, the Facebook page of opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun was hacked by the SEA. Shortly afterwards, the page began serving spyware to his fans, and his emails were published on the SEA’s website.

As for Assad, he neither confirms nor denies his endorsement of this army of hackers. But, two years ago, the dictator gave an almost forgotten speech at the university in Damascus. When he called upon his soldiers to fight the opposition, he also praised his cyber warriors as “a real army in a virtual reality”.