A group of hackers calling itself the Syrian Electronic Army is claiming responsibility for a Sunday morning attack on the Al-Jazeera news agency. Via Al-Jazeera’s mobile text message news service, the hackers successfully disseminated falsified reports that there had been an assassination attempt on the prime minister of Qatar. Qatar is a supporter of the rebels fighting the Syrian government and is the home base of Al-Jazeera.
The news agency posted a tweet on Sunday confirming the incident, as translated by The Hacker News:
We’d like to inform our subscribers that Aljazeera SMS service is being compromised by pirates and they’ve sent fake news with no basis. The story claiming that the prime minister (Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem) has been the target of an assassination attempt in the royal palace is completely false and was as result of hacking of the service.
Media outlets have become prime targets in the propaganda campaigns of pro-Assad activists. Last month, Reuters fell victim to such hackers when both its Twitter account and it website were compromised to post pro-Assad propaganda.
In April, a similar incident involving the Syrian Electronic Army occurred when the Saudi-Owned Al-Arabiya news network came under attack by hackers.
The first post suggested that Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, the Gulf Emirate’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, has been relieved of his duties and replaced by the country’s heir-apparent, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani.
This post was quickly followed by another news item suggesting that there was an explosion at a Qatari natural gas field which killed dozens of people.
The news was spreading at a rapid pace as people began predicting a rift within the Qatari Royal Family.
It was an Al-Jazeera employee, Doha blogger Ammar Mohammad, who posted tweets indicating that Al-Arabiya had been hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army and that reports coming from the account were false.
The Syrian Electronic Army is a group of hackers, suggested to be only a few individuals close to the Assad regime, which arose from the conflict between Syria’s government and the free rebels currently fighting one another in the region. Their targets frequently involve media and the group capitalizes on the vacuum created by the lack of journalists inside the conflict zone. Their aim is to influence public opinion through propaganda. The popular website Mashable offered a detailed background on the Syrian Electronic Army last month.
As forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad clash with the rebel Free Syrian Army in the streets of Syria, Internet-savvy government supporters are fighting a parallel information war in cyberspace. Called the Syrian Electronic Army, the group has a single mission: unleash an onslaught of pro-government propaganda upon the Internet.
To achieve that goal, the group uses social media platforms such as Twitter and YouTube to counter the claims of the rebel Free Syrian Army. It coordinates massive spam attacks against anyone it perceives to be anti-government, posting thousands of pro-government messages in news article comment threads and on public officials’ Facebook pages as a sort of digital sit-in.
The SEA, however, is more than a simple ideological spam factory. It has gained notoriety for downing, defacing or hijacking websites and social media profiles of major media outlets, then using them to post pro-government content. The goal? With few foreign journalists operating inside Syria, there may be a higher than normal opportunity for propaganda to Influence the outside world’s opinion of the volatile situation.
While the tension between the warring factions in Syria grows, the situation becomes even more complex as hacktivists continue to enter the mix. Last September, hackers associated with the hacker collective Anonymous launched #OpSyria, an operation that claims to defend the Syrian people and to fight against the Syrian government and president Bashar al-Assad.
This past February, Anonymous hackers leaked hundreds of emails from staffers of Assad’s office. And in July, Wikileaks began publishing the first of over two million emails that were handed over to the website in what has been posted as The Syria Files.
Over the last year, Anonymous has also met with retaliatory attacks from pro-Assad hackers, as Business Recorder reported last month:
After Anonymous activists defaced the Syrian Defence Ministry’s website, pro-al-Assad activists hacked into the homepage of the Anonymous platform AnonPlus, publishing photos of dead soldiers and saying Anonymous was siding with the Muslim Brotherhood by supporting the rebels. “Syria is a very, very serious business. Don’t fuck around with it,” warned a website of OpSyria activists.
But with all the chaos in Syria, doubts still remain for some as to who the “good guys” are in this fight. While the atrocities of the Syrian government are clear for all to see, the rebels fighting them are a bit of a grey area. Many governments have remained reluctant to arm the rebels, unsure that the fragmented opposition to the Syrian administration could offer an alternative structure that would be any more a democratic solution for the people of Syria. That said, propaganda from both sides of the fight certainly makes it a complicated one for the public to grasp.
This weekend’s attack on yet another news agency only highlights the dangers we face in these days of information warfare. While hacking attacks certainly present problems and can compromise crucial systems, the hackers’ dissemination of disinformation and propaganda can be just as dangerous in the midst of such a hostile global conflict where information influences the decisions and acts of so many, including anyone from rebels on the ground to leaders of allied and opposing governments. Nearly anyone can call oneself a hacktivist and conduct actions that s/he believes are for good reason on any side of a conflict, all too often with little accountability for the consequences.
You can expect that information warfare will only increase as a threat. Meanwhile, like Libya and Egypt, lives of the Syrian people hang in the balance.