Here is my latest for VICE.
Since protesters first took to Syria’s streets in March of 2011, the crisis has cost over 70,000 lives and displaced over a million refugees. And while Bashar al-Assad’s government continues to fight against armed opposition groups, a new war is beginning to take place online. However, this cyber-war isn’t restricted to just a room full of high-fiving neck-beards firing DDoS attacks at rebel computers, it’s having real and sometimes lethal effects on the ground.
The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) are a pro-Assad hacker organisation who claim responsibility for attacks on websites belonging to the Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Human Rights Watch, the Telegraph and theIndependent, among others. Most recently, they hacked the BBC Weather Twitter account and flooded it with pro-regime propaganda, which was more hilarious than it was an inspiration to load up, ship out and go to battle with Assad’s enemies, but I suppose it’s still getting their message out there.
I spoke to a Western security analyst (who wished to remain anonymous), who specialises in tracking malicious hacker organisations, about Syria’s virtual warriors.
“The SEA has been present for a long time,” he told me. “They do a few things: on the one hand they deface websites, and on the other hand they attack activists computers. While they claim to have worked independently, most believe that they are coordinating some of their efforts with elements of the Assad Regime.
“They seem fuelled by the perception that Syria is being misrepresented by Western propaganda and pitch themselves to journalists as trying to show ‘the real story’. They’d be more credible if they were more honest about their own affiliations and didn’t engage in their own propaganda. There’s also a widespread belief that the SEA shares the information that they gather from their attacks against activists with the Syrian government.”
The security analyst then told me that there’s a widespread belief that the information handed over by hackers has led directly to the murders of a number of anti-regime activists, which is when the whole thing stops being flippant and funny and gets a lot more sinister and scary. After a week or so of trying, I eventually got in touch with a hacker representing the SEA – who calls himself ‘Th3 Pr0’ – to discuss the group’s intentions.
VICE: So how was the Syrian Electronic Army formed and what does it hope to achieve?
Th3 Pr0: The SEA started at the beginning of the Syria crisis. Young Syrians came together to defend their country against a bloody propaganda campaign by media organisations such as Al Jazeera, BBC and France24. We’re all Syrian youths who each have our specialised computer skills, such as hacking and graphic design. Our mission is to defend our proud and beloved country Syria against a bloody media war that has been waged against her. The controlled media of certain countries continues to publish lies and fabricated news about Syria.
Why did you choose to attack the BBC Weather Twitter feed to get your message across? It seems like a weird choice.
Because the BBC have never published any truth about Syria – they’ve been completely biased in their coverage – so we used their Twitter feed to do it ourselves. Revolutions don’t need foreign guns and they don’t need to force civilians from their homes and execute anyone who opposes them. Revolutions ride on the back of popular uprisings, and there’s nothing popular about the Muslim Brotherhood running this “revolution”. The word revolution invokes a sense of mass public support, but what Syria is facing is not a revolution, it’s a foreign-backed armed insurrection.
What’s your view on hacktivist organisations like Anonymous who have previously targeted Syrian government affiliated sites?
Anonymous isn’t one organisation; there are many taking on that name, some of whom claim to be genuine fighters for justice but are actually FBI and CIA agents. By attacking Syria they’re simply following the agenda of the US government. They’re not a threat to us – we’ve hacked several of their websites and released the personal details of their members.
What’s the SEA position on the Syrian government’s internet blackout in November and restrictions such as blocks on Facebook and YouTube?
We think that the internet will be better without Facebook and YouTube, because it’s like prison – if you get into them, it’s hard to get out. But internet freedom in Syria is better than many other Arab countries. However, unlike what the mainstream media reported, it wasn’t the Syrian government that blacked out the internet, it was the opposition group, who call themselves the Free Syrian Army. They’re all using satellite phones given to them by the US, so they don’t need Syrian internet access. They attacked the lines to coincide on a push to control Damascus airport.
And what about claims that the SEA have passed on details of anti-regime activists to the government, which in some cases have led to those activists being arrested and/or killed?
No, that’s not true. We don’t give any information about any activists to the Syrian government. We don’t think the Syrian government needs our information; every country has its own intelligence.
So you’re saying you’ve never passed on information to the government in the past?
If FSA activists are planning on setting a bomb off or killing or kidnapping anyone, then yes, we’ll tell the government. We don’t hide the fact that many of the emails we obtained were forwarded to the Syrian government because of their importance and the fact they contained security and military information.
Okay. Thanks, Pr0.
After hearing that the SEA are apparently pretty nonplussed about Anonymous, the world’s best known hacktivist group, I figured I should get in contact with them to hear what they think about the situation. Commander X is one of Anonymous’ more vocal members and founder of the People’s Liberation Front (PLF), a group linked with Anonymous who actively participating in #OpSyria, an anti-Syrian government hacking campaign, as well as other Arab Spring hacktivist operations. With all that in mind, I thought he’d be a good person to talk to.
VICE: Hi, Commander X. Can you tell me a bit about Anonymous’ work in Syria and how you got involved with the conflict?
Commander X: I and the PLF, under the flag of Anonymous, launched Operation Syria the very first week that the protests began in Deraa, Syria and the police had brutalised some young protesters caught doing political graffiti near the university there. As a movement, we were fresh out of victories in both Tunisia and Egypt, and I guess we felt that we and the Arab Spring were both sort of invincible. I think we all honestly felt Assad would be easy to topple – I don’t think any of us back then could have predicted how things would turn out.
Our involvement in the events in Syria involve a sort of standard template within Anonymous and the movement that’s come to be called “Freedom Ops”. So our focus is, first and foremost, how do we keep the activists and protesters on the ground – as well as the entire population of Syria – safely connected to the internet? We also distribute the Anonymous Care Package, providing tech support for journalists and activists, media campaigns and, of course, offensive attacks on government web assets.
Can you tell me about your war with the Syrian Electronic Army?
The SEA was actually founded by Assad back when he was thought to have next to no chance of inheriting his fathers position as dictator because he was just such a geeky nerd. So they’ve been around a while, and we were aware from day one that they could become involved in the cyber conflict. As for our dealings with them, that’s pretty straightforward. They are, by their own choice of allegiance to the dictator, the enemies of Anonymous. And they introduced themselves into the conflict fairly early on with a rather spectacular hack of a fairly well known Anonymous web site. We, in turn, responded by attacking their web assets and that conflict continues to this day.
It’s a cyber war; they attack our assets, we attack theirs. They have their victories, and some spectacular defeats, and we have ours. To be honest, the war has gone on so long now you could probably fill up a book if you were to detail every engagement between Anonymous and the SEA.
Does Anonymous have a plan of action in place to target the SEA?
Frankly, both sides are a bit exhausted by the cyber war and I don’t think you could say that there’s any sort of battle plan other than to simply persevere and continue the fight. As long as they continue to support Assad, I think it’s safe to say the SEA would do well to expect us to carry on.