Nearly everyone following Middle Eastern politics has a general overview of the situation in Syria; This includes general knowledge about how the revolution started in Syria and its subsequent evolution, leading to the split between Syrians supporting and opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Yet, as the revolution stepped out of the country’s borders, world leaders took different sides and actions. Masses of people all over the world began watching events escalate on Syrian ground.
2011 was the year in which the revolution was born in Syria, with the government unblocking social websites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The opposition was the first to seize the opportunity to protect itself against the aggressive actions of the regime.
With this massive wave hitting the internet from the opposition, came a strong reaction from the Assad regime supporters. In this exact year, The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) emerged with a vast campaign of hacking. There is no exact date for this group’s formation. All we know is that in the second week of May, the official website was launched.
The SEA is a group of hackers, based in Syria, who have become known for spamming, website defacement, malware, and Denial of Service attacks. Their official website is http//sea.sy/index/en.
Through its time, the SEA has targeted political opposition groups, Western news organizations, human rights groups and websites that are seemingly neutral toward the Syrian conflict. To prove their strength and reach they have been able to hack governmental websites in the Middle East and Europe, as well as US defense contractors.
It is easier to understand what SEA is really about if we take a closer look at every website that was targeted so as to analyze the orientation of this group. Here are a few examples of actions against targeted websites:
- An attack on Reuters this past June, in which users who tried to view Reuters stories about Syria on a variety of news sites were redirected to a page that read: “Hacked by Syrian Electronic Army.”
- Attacks on the Washington Post, CNN and Time and the New York Times in August 2013.
- A tweet sent out from The Associated Press Twitter account in April 2013 claiming there were two explosions in the White House and U.S. President Barack Obama was injured. That caused the Dow Jones index to lose more than one percent of its value within 90 seconds.
- Leaking data that was collected by the SEA for the past years through Twitter. The SEA has released a total of 967 email accounts in 14 categories on the internet, unveiling scores of correspondence made between March 2009 and November 2012.
The list of emails hacked by the group includes a number of Turkish ministers, diplomats, and civil servants, as well as accounts from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Arab League. A user by the name Tech-worm had a conversation with the SEA asking about the reasons for such leaks. Here is a snippet of the conversation he had with them on 7 February:
What is the purpose or message behind the leak?
- Syrian Electronic Army:
The purpose is to gradually expose their bloodied hand in the war they launched against Syria.
For example, in the Saudi Arabia files, we will see deals between the ministry of defense and other military companies to buy mortar shells. Which the Saudi army doesn’t need, and that mortar shells were sent to the terrorists to hit Damascus.
The SEA is not the only hacker group oriented to nationalistic Arabic views. There is also Arab Attack, The Shadow, and al3arab. It must be clear by now that the SEA focused on the Syrian revolution. It claims that its goal is “to show the truth about Syria.” In most of its attacks on media organizations, SEA accuses them of publishing “fake reports and false articles about Syria.”
Starting on June 20, 2011, the SEA began to compromise and infiltrate opposition Facebook pages and post anti-regime logos on the pages.
Through access to these pages, the SEA posted pro-regime messages and graphics, but the titles of the pages remained intact. Seventeen pages were infiltrated, as of June 23. One of the pro-revolution pages allegedly published the names of the regime informants in Damascus, and another page was dedicated to acknowledging Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for “standing with the Syrian people.”Anti-regime postings continued to appear in these pages and the number of each page’s fans has dropped significantly after the infiltration. The SEA posted on its YouTube channel a video clip showing how it “attacked” Facebook pages to replace their logos with its own. At the time of publication, we are not able to conclusively determine how this breach was technically implemented.
Yet the SEA’s activities did not stop at hacking. It organized Facebook groups and campaigns in which it led people to report certain social media pages as inappropriate. Because of the massive number of reports, social media companies took down a lot of pages.
The SEA’s actions, regardless of its targets, raise questions about the legal responsibility and international consequences of activities that manipulate and disrupt online businesses and personal websites in foreign jurisdictions. This brings up the possibility of linking the SEA to a government organization.
It happened to be that in a televised speech to the nation 21 June 2011, President Bashar al-Assad stated his appreciation for the SEA’s efforts, describing it as a real army in virtual reality. The SEA stated on its website that it was honored by the mention in the President’s speech, but reiterated that it is not affiliated with any government entity. Could this be a well-staged play to fool the world community?
Although there is no real evidence linking the SEA to the Syrian regime, the President’s statement and the fact that the group is able to operate with impunity over Syrian networks shows at least tacit official support for their activities. Will world leaders one day blame Assad regime for the hacks? Will this group give the West another reason to put Syria under ever more sanctions?
These questions circle in the minds of those who have the least to gain out of situation in Syria; these are the simple citizens that do not dream really that much of peace and economic prosperity. Most of them are Syrian citizens victim of war.
This article was written by a guest journalist:
Yasmeen Hazem Abdlhak – Syria
Born and raised in Syria, Yasmeen has been living in Azerbaijan since 2013 to study international relations at Baku Slavic University. Yasmeen participates in MUNs and many other conferences; speaks Arabic, English and Russian; and loves horses, coffee and a good book.
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