My latest for VICE on the SEA.
Hours after US officials declared that the United States may launch missile strikes against the Syrian government, pro-Assad hackers known as the Syrian Electronic Army hijacked the domain name servers of several media companies. The New York Times website was down for several hours, although the company quickly established a backup site to continue their reporting. The DNS of Twitter and Huffington Post UK were also hacked, redirecting users to a server that appeared to be hosted by the SEA.
A confirmed official Twitter account for the Syrian Electronic Army boasted about the hack shortly after it occured:
The credentials of a Melbourne IT reseller (username and password) were used to access a reseller account on Melbourne IT’s systems.
The DNS records of several domain names on that reseller account were changed – including nytimes.com
We are currently reviewing our logs to see if we can obtain information on the identity of the party that has used the reseller credentials, and we will share this information with the reseller and any relevant law enforcement bodies.
Twitter also released their own statement shortly after that claimed no user information had been compromised:
At 20:49 UTC, our DNS provider experienced an issue in which it appears DNS records for various organizations were modified, including one of Twitter’s domains used for image serving. Viewing of images and photos was sporadically impacted. By 22:29 UTC, the original domain record for Twimg.com was restored. No Twitter user information was affected by this incident.
The Syrian Electronic Army has become notorious for infiltrating the social media accounts and websites of some of the world’s largest media corporations. Earlier this year, the SEA briefly took control of the Twitter account belonging to the Associated Press. A malicious tweet claiming Barack Obama had been injured in a bomb blast at the White House caused the DOW Jones to plummet an amazing $136 billion as automated high-frequency trading bots reacted to the tweet.
VICE has spoken to the Syrian Electronic Army on several occasions, specifically following their attacks on the Associated Press, the Guardian, and the Onion. Their members have always backed the actions of the Syrian government and have refused to criticize Bashar Assad in any way. In a previous interview with an SEA member known as “The Shadow” they told us, “There is no perfect army in the world and we cannot claim that every soldier in the Syrian Arab Army adheres to the rules of combat… We are in no position to criticize specific actions by the army from the safety of our homes.”
Last April, Shadow told us that taking control of corporate accounts would be harder following Twitter’s introduction of a two-step verification process. However, at that time they warned that the public shouldn’t get too comfortable. Hijacking Twitter accounts, they said, was never their “primary attack vector.”
We contacted the SEA via email once again and received several answers from Th3Pr0, leader of the Special Operations Department in the Syrian Electronic Army. The responses to the first three questions were written in English and have been left unedited. The remainder of the interview was conducted on a separate email chain and those responses have been translated from the Arabic.
VICE: How did you gain access to the DNS of the companies you targeted? And why did you go after Twitter—aren’t there many people on Twitter against potential US intervention?
Th3Pr0: We hit Melbourne IT and gained access to all the company domains, however we attacked Twitter after they closed our account 15 time and we did warned them.
Last time we spoke, you said the Syrian Electronic Army had no contact with the Syrian government. Is that still the case?
We contacted the Syrian government lately to deliver the databases of Viber.com, Tango.me, andTrueCaller.com.
And why would these websites be important to the Syrian government?
Huge numbers of terrorists use Viber and Tango for contacting (communication).
Tell us more about the recent website attacks. They are much more advanced than your previous ones.
We have many types of attacks and we use a certain type depending on the target and how secure it is.
Who do you feel is responsible for the chemical attacks?
Of course the terrorist groups like AlNusra and the FSA, as commanded by the USA to be the means and justification to strike Syria militarily.
What evidence do you have to support your view?
The Syrian army won’t/wouldn’t use chemical weapons, and a military official has stated that this is political suicide. In addition, the fast progress by the Syrian army in Al-Ghouta.
If you believe the rebels have the technology to use chemical weapons, why have they not targeted the Syrian Army with them?
They have indeed used it against the army in Khan Al-Assal and Jobar. But the “Ghouta massacre” is to justify American military intervention because of the failure of these groups to accomplish tangible progress on the ground and shift the power balance to their favor.
Did those chemical attacks on children sicken you or make you feel angry at all?
Most of those affected were women and children and not a single terrorist, photographer, or reporter for a channel of “coordination committees” was there, which stands as an obstacle in accusing the regime. Also, how did they go to an area where “chemical weapons” were allegedly used and start filming the dead and talking without gas masks?
Foreign Policy published this yesterday:
“Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they’re certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime—and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days.”
What is your response to these allegations?
As I have said before, it is not in the best [interest] of the Syrian state to use chemical weapons when the army is making such significant progress. It is foolish to use these weapons against women and children and not use it against terrorist fighters.
If, and I mean hypothetically if, it turns out the regime was directly responsible for the chemical attacks would it change your position at all?
Of course not and it won’t happen. The Syrian army soldiers are loyal patriotic Syrians who would never use these types of weapons against the innocent. If it were actually to be used, it would be against the terrorist rebels. Most opposition fighters are mercenaries from Arab and foreign states. They are not Syrian and murdering Syrians is normal to them. They are sent by their masters to destroy Syria and kill its people.
Have things changed much on the ground for you guys? How are you all feeling about this possible Western intervention? The evidence is mounting, including the new video released.
No, nothing has changed. We were prepared for such a scenario and such a [staged] “film” as a reason to strike Syria.
How far do you think Western governments might be prepared to go?
Whatever their plans may be, we will stay and resist.
Are you guys worried you might be targeted?
No we are not worried and will stay in Syria determined and resistant.
Are there any particular issues you feel are not being heard enough?
Yes, like the massacres that occurred in the rural areas in Lattakia, where dozens of families were slaughtered by the terrorist groups and the media never mentioned it.