Check out my latest for VICE on the Syrian Electronic Army’s latest cyber attacks.
As the situation in Syria escalates, new battle lines are being drawn. With confirmation of Hezbollah fighters encroaching into Syrian territory to fight rebels and reports of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) launching rockets into neighbouring Lebanon, the battle seems to be spreading geographically. Now, as the struggle on the ground increases, so too does the battle in cyberspace.
Over the weekend, the pro-Assad hacker group the Syrian Electronic Army hacked into numerous Twitter accounts run by the Guardian. The collective aim to “punish” Western media outlets for writing negatively about Bashar al-Assad’s regime while also spreading their own version of the truth – that the Free Syrian Army isn’t a popular uprising at all, and that the war against the incumbent regime is a coup attempt orchestrated by al-Qaeda.
They didn’t do a great deal of damage with the Guardian attack (as you can see in the image above). But their hacks aren’t always so harmless.
Last week, the Associated Press’s Twitter account was hacked by the SEA. They published a spurious tweet claiming that President Obama had been injured in a bomb blast at the White House. This sent the stock market into a panic and, as the markets reacted to the news, the DOW Jones was sent plummeting by a staggering $136 billion. Once everyone realised the tweet was bogus, the markets quickly recovered, but the potential damage cyber attacks can cause was there for the whole world to see.
I spoke to Mikko Hypponen, a security expert at F-Secure, to find out why the tweet affected the stock market so severely. “High-frequency trading bots are monitoring real-time news sources like press feeds and stock exchange notices,” he explained. “They try to analyse whether the news is positive or negative. Then they will automatically buy and sell stock accordingly. While this is awfully unscientific, on average they make more profits than losses.
“When SEA hacked AP and posted the single fake tweet, trading bots saw crucial keywords from a highly authoritative source: ‘Explosion’, ‘White House’, ‘Obama’ and ‘Injured’, which was a strong sell. It took some minutes until human operators interceded and stopped the madness.”
The drop in the DOW Jones after the SEA’s Obama tweet.
Whether the market recovered or not, the potential for damage is a pretty daunting prospect for the future of the world’s economy, and is proof that cyber attacks are becoming a very real element of warfare.
I first tried to get in touch with the SEA through their official Facebook and Twitter accounts a few weeks back. Someone claiming to be a member of the SEA, calling themselves “Th3 Pr0”, wrote back with an email address to send my questions to. As these social media accounts are always the first places to highlight the SEA’s attacks – and immediately posted my original article when I emailed over the link – I believe that Th3 Pr0 is a legitimate member of the SEA, even if his chosen web moniker makes him sound more like a online poker player. [Update – this would also seem to confirm that Th3 Pr0 is a prominent member of the SEA.]
I got in contact with Th3 Pr0 again at the weekend to find out more about the SEA and their latest round of hacks.
VICE: Hey, Pr0. Why did you choose the Guardian? Have they said anything you don’t like?
Th3 Pr0: The Guardian is a famous newspaper in the UK and in addition some of its reports are false. This makes it a good target for us, as well as the fact that, yesterday, they reported a false article about us. [In this story, the Guardian claimed the SEA had moved “from Damascus to a secret base in Dubai”. Later, theyreported they had “since discovered the attack originated from Internet Protocol (IP) addresses within Syria.”]What do you think about that?!
How easy was it to hack their Twitter account?
It was very easy. We hacked more than 11 of their Twitter accounts and we downloaded some important messages from their email accounts.
Are there any particular English-speaking journalists you don’t like? Why?
There are many, really. But any media company in the world has to know that it is a target for us when it reports false or fabricated news.
How do you feel when foreign journalists are killed in Syria?
Sure, it’s a crime, but we have to know who is killing them to say after that: “It is the regime, for sure!”
What evidence do you have that the regime aren’t responsible for the massacres they have been accused of?
The Syrian Arab Army soldiers are Syrians and they don’t kill their own people – so you have to see who has foreign terrorists: the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat Alnosra. They have Libyan, Saudi Arabian, Pakistani terrorists in their ranks.
So why did you guys choose the Associated Press as a target?
The Associated Press is a world famous news agency, especially in the US, which made it a good target for us.
What made you decide to tweet to the world that Obama had been blown up?
We’re against the United States government; it’s behind what’s happening in Syria and they have attacked the SEA by suspending our domain names, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, etc. It represents the axis of evil in the world.
Were you expecting the tweet to cause so much damage? Shaking up the stock market by $136 billion is pretty impressive for a Twitter hack.
Yes, we expected damage because the Associated Press is a trusted agency in the US. The American people believe it, so we knew there would be a huge amount of chaos.
Is there anything in particular the SEA are hoping to achieve with these high profile attacks?
Our targets and mission are known, so we’ll keep working to publish the truth about Syria and cause damage to the countries who support the terrorist groups within Syria.
Has the AP attack made you refocus your energies on attacking more financial services or the stock exchange directly?
As I said, our targets are known and we will keep doing the same work to defend our country.
How important do you think cyberwarfare is to the future of conflict?
It’s very important and, according to the Global Post, we are winning the cyberwar. Cyberspace has become a new battlefield.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s account was also hacked by the SEA, as was the account @FIFAWorldCup.
The United States Congress are taking some hefty steps to combat groups like yourself and Anonymous now. How do you see the future of cyberwarfare progressing?
They already started suspending us from the internet by closing our accounts, our pages and suspending our domain names, but they failed and they will keep failing. We will not stop or despair. If they close a Twitter account, we will open a new one; if they close a Facebook page, we will create another one; if they suspend our domain names, we will buy new ones.
I’ve heard that the Syrian government and President Assad himself are proud of the SEA’s work. Where do you guys stand on this? Do you feel like you’re doing some of the government’s work for them?
Yes, that’s true, but we’re not doing the government’s job. They are proud of us because we’re doing the right thing and defending our country.
What does this attack say about the cyber security used by the American press and stock exchange?
This attack exposed the fragility of the US economy and what a simple tweet can do to it.
How do you see the war in Syria progressing? Things haven’t improved much for either side since we last spoke.
The Syrian Arab Army is defeating the terrorist groups and soon we will declare our victory.
Alright then. What’s the SEA’s position on Hezbollah, especially with their recent involvement with the conflict in Syria and their alliance with the Syrian government?
We are supporters of Hezbollah. They faced Israel once and defeated it, but they are not involved in Syria – all of the news about that is false.
Actually, within the last few weeks, Hezbollah representatives have started to admit that they have fighters defending Shi’ite border towns within Syrian territory. Do you have a comment on this?
Some of Hezbollah’s soldiers are Syrians, and you said, “defending Shi’ite border towns”, so they’re not defending the Syrian government.
With Hezbollah fighters on the ground in certain areas of Syria, is it not hypocritical to criticise foreign fighters from the Middle East joining the Free Syrian Army?
It’s really funny to ask this question. They are already “jihadists” in the FSA. We have Libyans, Saudis and Chechen terrorists coming to kill us.
I know you have a problem with foreign intervention within Syria, but the SEA don’t seem to criticise Russia or Iran for also involving themselves – is that a fair point?
Iran and Russia support Syria because it’s an ally of those countries. They are sending medical and food aid, but the US, Qatar and Saudi Arabia don’t think about that – they’re sending the weapons for the terrorists and supporting them all the way. That’s the real foreign intervention.
The Free Syrian Army have now also started shelling Lebanese villages that they accuse of sending fighters into Syria. How does the SEA feel about the conflict spreading into neighbouring countries?
As I said, the FSA are terrorists. They are destroying every village they can destroy and stealing and kidnapping. It’s impossible to let these terrorists rule Syria.
Does the SEA have any position on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Army?
The Syrian Army didn’t use chemical weapons in Syria. Many media channels and websites have said that the reports about that aren’t confirmed.
Well, plenty of sources – including the White House – are beginning to claim that the Syrian Arab Army used chemical weapons. I know you dispute that, but does it change anything if the allegations turn out to be true? Do you trust the Syrian Arab Army, no matter what?
Yes, I trust the Syrian Arab Army and they didn’t use chemical weapons. The United States are saying that to put forward the argument for foreign intervention in Syria, just like what happened in Iraq.
With refugees from the conflict standing at over a million people, how does the SEA see the future of Syria and the future of those civilians who have fled the fighting? What comes after the war and how will the country try to rebuild and house these displaced people?
When the Syrian Arab Army defeats the terrorists, we will all rebuild Syria for a better future.
How are the SEA reacting to their newfound fame?
We are not looking for fame. We want to defend our country and this is our goal, nothing else.
Also, following on from this interview I asked the Pr0 a couple more things to clarify the Guardian’s accusations. In response to the claims that they are based in Dubai, Th3 Pr0 said they are all still largely based in Damascus and that none of their members have defected. I think the last point is quite crucial as during my time meeting Alawites and other Pro-Assad factions their support seems absolutely unshakeable. It would seem pretty strange for one of these guys to up and defect in such a manner. Also, I think it is worth noting that on the day this was published, the leader of Hezbollah Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah tacitly confirmed Hezbollah troops were on the ground in Syria.