“Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured,” the Associated Press tweeted on April 23.
It just took one tweet to rattle the foundation of the U.S. economy. Investors scrambled to sell their shares, fearing the collapse of the government as the Dow tumbled 145 points and $140 billion in only 90 seconds.
The attack didn’t target the Associated Press, it targeted America, and it came from the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) – a vigilante organization of kids no older than college students suspected to have ties to the Syrian government. Its leader, who calls himself “The Shadow,” spoke to Digital Trends about the SEA’s attack on the AP’s Twitter account, its other targets, and what it hopes to accomplish.
The ‘who’ and ‘why’ of the SEA
In order to understand SEA’s motivation, it’s necessary to go further back. Two years ago, Syria was thrown into a civil war stemming from the Arab Spring rebellions that swept the Middle East. Syrian rebels fought to overthrow the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, motivated by Assad’s track record of human rights violations including reported assassinations of political prisoners, and the alleged nepotism that initiated his 30-year presidency.
The Syrian uprising has differed in many ways from similar events collectively known as the “Arab Spring,” which toppled governments in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt. Where the established regimes in those countries fell relatively quickly, Assad’s government was both more entrenched and garnered more domestic support. The result is bloody civil war that has raged for over two years and claimed upwards of 80,000 lives – many of them innocent civilians – while creating a devastating refuge crisis of over a million displaced people. In one important way, however, the Syrian Civil War has mirrored the rest of the Arab Spring: social media has played a critical role in mobilizing forces and disseminating information.
But not everyone believes the reports flooding out of Syria through social media were accurate. Members of the SEA saw the resulting media coverage as Western media outlets running with rebel propaganda, and dreamed up attacks on social media accounts as a way to dissolve trust them.
“We could not stay passive towards the massive distortion of facts about the recent uprising in Syria,” says The Shadow. “[The U.S. media is] exploiting good thinking people by pumping reports of a revolution. You see what the American government wants you to see, but it is a fake revolution.” He believes the American government forced news organizations to publish damning Syrian regime reports, spurring him to form the SEA and launch countermeasures.
At just 24 years old, The Shadow commands a youthful band of hackers, who are located both inside and outside Syria. Despite its public attacks, the organization has eluded just about everyone looking for them – and sees the hunt for them as nothing more than fun and games. The group’s sole agenda is to make a mockery of major U.S. news publications – as they see it, giving them a taste of their own misinformation.
If a group run by a bunch of 16 to 20-something guys hacking from the comfort of their homes, schools, offices rings a bell, it should: That’s how Anonymous is known to operate. But analysts and political experts who’ve devoted much time to unmasking this two year-old organization see no ties to the group famous for supporting WikiLeaks and Cablegate, as well as taking down Sony’s PlayStation Network.
Hacking to kill media trust
The Shadow is incredibly proud of the SEA’s “achievements” so far, saying, “We knew in advance that the AP hack will be a big mess in America.”
“We have succeeded in delivering our voice to the world; it notes that a lot of people have been affected by the news that we publish,” he says. But their attacks aren’t only about defacing a few social media accounts belonging to major news organizations: As The Shadow sees it, the SEA is playing a game of psychological warfare.
The SEA believes we have an almost sheep-like devotion and trust in social media, and that their targeted attacks will cause us to start questioning our media sources. “[Americans will] search for the truth themselves and not to listen to politicized news organizations,” says The Shadow.
Does the SEA have backup?
While The Shadow paints the SEA as a band of Syrian patriots motivated by their own quest for truth in the media, some researchers suspect the group isn’t working alone. One researcher, Helmi Noman, recently told CNN about a connection he sees between the SEA and the Syrian government: “What we know is that their [former] domain name was registered by the Syrian Computer Society. We looked into the Syrian Computer Society and discovered that it was headed by al-Assad in the 1990s, before he was president. It’s hosted on the network of the Syrian government.”
The Shadow denies it. “We do not have financial and logistical support from the Syrian government or the private parties. Quite simply our work does not need material or logistical support. All we need is an Internet connection and computer. Everyone has these things.”
“There are also strong indications that members of the group are trained by Iranian [information technology] experts.”
He says there isn’t a “command center” or a central location. “Everyone works from his home or his own job.” He laughs, denying claims that SEA hackers are receiving monetary compensation for each hack. “If I get money back on this work, [would have] become a millionaire. We do not work for money but we work for the cause – the defense of our homeland.”
Insider reports also contradict The Shadow’s claims of an independence from the Syrian government. Amjad Baiazy, a cyber-researcher who was reportedly detained by the Syrian regime, tells Yahoo that the SEA does have a “close relationship” with the regime. “I can’t say if they are also supported by certain individuals, but I can say they are funded by the regime. There are also strong indications that members of the group are trained by Iranian [information technology] experts.”
The Guardian also cited SEA defectors who claim the organization’s headquarters moved from Damascus to somewhere in Dubai with the financial backing of Rami Makhlouf, the Syrian president’s billionaire cousin.
Whether or not the Syrian government is backing the SEA, this is an organization running with the best interest of Assad in mind. And the SEA leader reminds us that pro-government hackers like him and his group are all over the world. The U.S. government hasn’t shied away from the fact that it has programs for recruiting hackers. This is the evolution of information warfare at work.
Should the Syrian Electronic Army be taken seriously?
Does the SEA represent an annoyance or a serious threat to the Western world? While the AP Twitter hack caused hearts to skip a beat on Wall Street as the market plunged, the group’s other efforts have been quickly defused. In one recent SEA tweet from its 12th Twitter account dated May 1, the group suggested that its next target would be less forgiving and forgettable.
Fast forward to May 7 … and we can say that the target was indeed “different.” It turned out to be an attack on the Onion’s Twitter account, the faux news site, of all places. This was followed by an attack on the E! Twitter account. The “army” had seemingly shifted its efforts to an outlet that publishes satirical news and itself takes jabs at American media, as well as another that spends more time discussing Justin Bieber than President Obama.
“We deliver the voice of the Syrian people [to] explain what is really happening on the ground.”
The organization started off in its early days hacking, defacing, and organizing DDoS attacks on websites like Al Jazeera that the SEA claimed had a media agenda opposing the Syrian government. But the SEA since graduated to social networks, reasoning that’s where the eyeballs are. The SEA has been known to hack Facebook and Twitter accounts, websites, and allegedly even an SMS service.
Here’s a look at the SEA’s targets, as of publishing time:
- E! Online (Twitter and SMS service)
- The Onion (Twitter and Facebook)
- The Guardian (11 Twitter accounts)
- The Associated Press (Twitter)
- FIFA (Twitter)
- FIFA president Joseph Blatter (Twitter)
- CBS (Twitter)
- NPR (website and Twitter)
- League of Arab States (website)
- BBC (Twitter)
- Human Rights Watch (website and Twitter)
- Deutsche Welle (Twitter)
- France24 (website and Twitter)
- Qatar Foundation (Twitter and Facebook)
- AFP (Twitter)
- Sky News Arabia (Facebook)
Whlile the AP and the BBC are reliable, trusted publications, one has to wonder whether fake tweets from The Onion and E! would send shockwaves through the United States. Still, Twitter is warning us to expect more of this type of thing, and there could be a loss of perceived legitimacy across the board because of it.
Regardless of the scale of its targets, The Shadow believes his organization will be able to hurt American media. “We deliver the voice of the Syrian people [to] explain what is really happening on the ground,” he claims. “Not what the media is doing – [which is the] fabrication of the facts to serve American interest at the expense of the blood of the Syrian people.”