My latest on the Syrian Electronic Army for VICE Canada with Dell Cameron.
How the SEA made use of their time with The Onion’s Twitter account.
Last week, VICE interviewed “Th3 Pr0”, a member of the hacker group Syrian Electronic Army and head of their Special Operations division. The SEA are staunch supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They claim that the rebel forces attempting to overthrow the Syrian government are financed and controlled by Western-backed terrorist factions, including groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra who have been designated as a “terrorist organization” by the Obama administration and are in open alliance with al-Qaeda. This week, four U.N. Peacekeepers were abducted by Al-Qaeda linked Syrian rebels known as the Martyrs of Yarmouk in the Israeli occupied Syrian territory known as the Golan Heights. The knowledge of these nefarious associations have not delayed the United States however from aiding the Syrian rebels. U.S. aid in the form of medical supplies and ready-to-eat meals were delivered to the Free Syrian Army in the Aleppo district late last week.
By most estimates the civil war in Syria has already claimed the lives of over 70,000 people and even with external forces beginning to intervene there is no end in sight for this conflict. The fighting won’t be confined to physical locations however, and as with many other conflicts worldwide, cyberspace has now become a secondary theater of war. The SEA have been waging war against Western media networks who they accuse of distorting facts and facilitating the approval of western intervention against the Assad regime. To date they have infiltrated dozens of social media accounts belonging to numerous news networks, including affiliated accounts of CBS, The Guardian and the Associated Press, to name a few. As we recently reported, the @AP hack caused an dramatic $136 billion drop in the DOW Jones after the official Twitter account of the Associated Press tweeted about two explosions at the White House while under SEA control.
This week, the SEA successfully hacked the Twitter account of the popular satirical news site ‘The Onion’ and tweeted numerous messages condemning the UN, the government of Qatar, Israel and the CEO of The Onion for “taking zioist money to defame Syria”. While The Onion may seem much less relevant that an account like the Associated Press, in terms of reach the attack may have been tactical. @TheOnion’s following exceeded that of @AP by 2.9 million users, although it wasn’t clear if this factored into SEA’s decision to target the Onion. Since the SEA are likely casting a broad net with the use of phishing e-mails as opposed to hacking Twitter’s servers to gain access, the actions of The Onion’s own employees are likely to blame for the loss of access. It’s also possible The Onion may have made themselves a target last week when they copied and re-tweeted the hoax @AP message as a kind of “too soon” joke.
Twitter quickly restored @TheOnion and their writers immediately went to work on the SEA. An article was published as if written by the Syrian Electronic Army that claimed the SEA intended to hack The Onion website as well, but were turned off by how obsolete the coding was, “We want users to immediately see our message that Zionist-controlled interests are distorting the facts that come out of Syria… And when we looked at the layout of The Onion’s homepage, we immediately realized the huge mistake we’d made.” The self-deprecating piece that attacked The Onion’s journalistic integrity and claimed the hackers would be ashamed to host a pro-Assad regime message on its site ended with a plea for the The Onion to get it’s shit together, “If not for our sake, then for your readers’.”
I contacted The Onion for a response to the SEA attack, and briefly exchanged e-mails with Bob Marshall (no title given) who provided me an official press release titled “Syrian Electronic Army Has A Little Fun Before Inevitable Upcoming Deaths At Hands Of Rebels.” In their typically dry satirical style, The Onion’s statement ended with the entire team of hackers being massacred at the hands of the FSA rebels:
“After hacking into The Onion’s Twitter account earlier today, members of the Syrian Electronic Army confirmed that the organization simply wanted to have a little fun before soon dying at the hands of rebel forces. “We figured that before they bust in here and execute every single one of us, we might as well have a good time and post some silly tweets about Israel from a major media outlet’s feed,” said a spokesperson from the pro-Assad group, adding that he and his cohorts “had a few good laughs” and are now fully prepared for their painful and undoubtedly horrific deaths in the coming days. “I mean, we definitely don’t have much time left, so we thought, hey, let’s just enjoy ourselves before getting blown away by rockets, decapitated, beaten to death, or hung during public executions. Why not, right?” At press time, violent screams and pleas for mercy were reportedly overheard as rebel troops broke into the Syrian Electronic Army’s hideout.”
A second link assured me that The Onion had taken every step to ensure their accounts would not be compromised a second time–their password had been changed to OnionMan77 and they felt the length and complexity of this password made their account “virtually impenetrable.”
We decided to touch base with the Syrian Electronic Army once again to learn more about their intentions behind The Onion attack. This time we spoke to a hacker, also a member of the “Special Operations Division” of SEA, known as The Shadow:
VICE: Hey Shadow, what made you decide to go after The Onion this week after spending so much time targeting serious news organizations?
The Shadow: We are well aware of the satirical nature of The Onion, but this does not detract from the fact that the basis of their ‘humor’ was rooted in the narrative promoted by most major corporate media. What convinced us to make our move was the article “The Onion website joins the U.S. Anti-Syria Club” by Shamus Cooke that details how The Onion can be even more effective war-time propaganda than even “serious” and seemingly credible media. The irresponsible promotion of chemical weapons claims and attribution of all the mayhem in Syria on the one side attempting to keep order is very much an assumption of their focus on Syria. This is why the majority of informed people do not find such articles funny.
Why did you accuse The Onion of taking “Zionist money” in exchange for defaming Syria?
We have various tactics when we penetrate a media outlet, for The Onion we decided to loosely follow their style. We do not seriously suggest any kind of money transfer from unnamed “Zionist” sources, we realize it is more likely that The Onion follow the corporate line as a matter of ideology. During the Second World War, both the Germans and the Americans used satire to attack one another. The Onion serves as the same sort of wartime infrastructure as equivalent material back then such as the Disney anti-German short films.
What do you think about the Onion’s response claiming that the SEA were massacred at the hands of the FSA?
Many readers found it in poor taste, one twitter user responding with a simple “yikes”. This reaction was exactly what we were hoping for, as the writer placed all their anger in it, dropping the mask of the real situation in Syria. The rebels were depicted in the exact same manner as reality, so it cannot really be classified as satire except with one difference — the Syrian army will win and we don’t have a “base” that can be attacked.
We have reports that the Internet and phone lines were in a complete shutdown last night in Syria, is this true?
Unfortunately it is true, though mobile phones worked intermittently due to a large number of Syrians using them as an alternate form of communication. These kinds of cuts do not affect the terrorists operating in Syria as they have their own US-supplied communication equipment. The blackout effectively shut down our operations, we are glad to be back.
Can you tell us more about the Israeli airstrike in Damascus?
I was asleep during the bombings, but I heard some explosions later though I never saw them. These acts of terror only motivate us to work harder to defend our country on the internet from these terrorists and their masters.
Have the recent attacks by Israel changed the course of the Syrian Cyberwar in any specific way?
I cannot comment about this at the current time as not to give any hints to the enemy.
What is the official SEA response to the Israeli strikes?
Again, I cannot comment about this in any specific detail, but they will not be spared from our efforts, just like all sides conspiring against Syria.
Do you feel the situation is getting easier or harder for the Syrian government right now?
We aren’t military or political experts, but the situation does seem to be improving for the government, especially from the general opinions of friends, family and online contacts. The public awareness of the conspiracy targeting the nation has made the war exponentially easier for the government.
If Israel and the United States become fully involved in the conflict and send troops/fighter jets to attack regime targets, do you still feel confident of winning the war?
If Israel and the United States were fully involved, we would be even more confident in victory even though it will come at a great cost to the entire planet. At least then the world will share the pain we suffered alone.
In warfare, ideally, both sides would agree that certain actions are illegal. Are there any boundaries in cyberwarfare you feel should be respected? Is there any thing you won’t hack as a matter of principle?
For sure, the moment when human life is at risk or damage to infrastructure is possible, computer hacking transitions from hacktivism to cyberwarfare or cyberterrorism. Recently, an unknown group pretending to be the SEA hacked into a fictional “Israel Critical Infrastructure” SCADA system. This was attributed to the Syrian Electronic Army, but we never announced it on any of our official mediums. We do not approve of this, if anything, it does not contribute to our cause of showing people the truth. Quite the contrary.
Are there any actions taken by Syrian Arab Army or Shabiha forces that the SEA disapprove of?
First off, we don’t recognize the existence of the so-called Shabiha that were popularized by the Al-Jazeera propaganda channel. 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, but overall, we can say with confidence that this is a heroic army who risk their lives for the safety and dignity of our people. We are in no position to criticize specific actions by the army from the safety of our homes. If we may, we would also like to add that many massacres that have been pinned on the Syrian army were in fact committed by the terrorists. Real journalists on the ground like Alex Thomson of Channel 4 have investigated several of these massacres and the locals verified that it was not the army who attacked them.
Many people are suggesting changing the way Twitter works so there is now a 2-step verification process to make life harder for the SEA. Would that make life harder for you guys?
It will definitely make it harder on Twitter, but this was never our primary attack vector. Nevertheless, there are still some security holes in Twitter’s model that we hope to exploit in the future so no one should get too comfortable, we are not going to give up.
How do you feel about the SEA’s work over the last year or so?
Given the fact that we are a voluntary group, that most of us have studies or work to tend to and that many of us live in a warzone, we believe we have done the best that we could. We don’t want to disappoint the Syrian people by being too satisfied with what has been achieved so far. We know for sure that we can go even further.
Max Fisher, while writing for the Washington Post blog, said that you guys aren’t very funny, do you have a response to him?
Max Fischer most likely based his ‘they’re juvenile’ comment solely on the E! News hacks where it was announced that Justin Bieber was gay. This was the first time the SEA hacked an entertainment outlet. We did in fact do the hack “for the lulz”, especially since so many fans demanded it inside and outside Syria. The sharp eye would have picked a story behind one of the tweets: the Angelina Jolie tweet. She has visited in December 2012 a Syrian refugees camp in Jordan and was video tapped teary-eyed, voicing her sympathies to the refugees. We know the likes of Jolie, who under the ‘humanitarian’ cover, only serve American imperialism. Furthermore, the timing of the hack with the visit by Bieber to a Gulf state conspiring against our nation shouldn’t be ignored.
As for us being “unfunny”, one only has to observe the replies and the reactions to the hacked tweets to see that the majority of the ‘Twittersphere’ who have interacted with or encounter the SEA find us witty and informative. We can’t please every body and Fischer’s comment is just another opinion. What can we say? Haters gonna hate.
Why have you been willing to talk to us at VICE? Are we not just as likely targets for a hack too?
We generally target the most malicious media, especially those who refuse to cover both sides of the war. We won’t say we approve of anyone’s coverage, but the fact that you’re willing to hear a second point of view means that VICE won’t be on our radars. There are many media sites we could have easily targeted, but didn’t out of at least gratitude for a slim amount of journalistic integrity. On the other hand, out-right lying media such as the Guardian is going to be a target for the rest of the war. They even managed to claim we are paid for our hacks (to delegitimize our cause), imagined a SEA base in Dubai connecting to them via Syria (an entire base, I kid you not!) while at the same time claiming that they interviewed a “defector” who classified our sectarian affiliation. Needless to say, this was the Guardian’s knee-jerk response to our infiltration of their media. Our response to Luke Harding and others is, U MAD BRO?