Online pirate army fights for downfall of Assad
Software engineers on both sides are involved in a battle for Syria’s future, writes SEAMUS MIRODAN
Ahmad, a 28-year-old Syrian hacker, sat at his computer in a hotel room in southern Turkey attempting to break through the firewall of the Syrian Electronic Army website.
“It really annoys me,” he said, “particularly the logo. It’s like a red flag to a bull, I have to get inside!”
Ahmad is one of the founding members of two groups of Syrian software designers and network engineers sympathetic to the Free Syrian Army who have been dubbed “The Pirates of Aleppo” and the “Falcons of Damascus” by the civilian population of their respective home cities.
Over the last 18 months, these groups have wreaked their own brand of havoc on the regime by hacking into websites and TV channels which support Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The young software developer started on this path in the early days of the Syrian uprising by uploading to YouTube under the moniker “Harvester” videos of demonstrations with English subtitles, in the hope that those on the outside would come to understand the events taking place in his country. In the summer of 2011, as the demonstrations became a daily occurrence and the regime sought to stamp out dissent with a heavy hand, Ahmad, like many young people who had studied computer science in Syria, was approached by a regime-sponsored organisation calling itself the Syrian Electronic Army.
“A friend of mine was already working with them,” he explained, “and he took me along to their operations centre, hoping to sign me up. It was like a normal computer shop in the front, but at the back there were stairs leading down to a basement where I discovered another world: rows of routers and high-spec machines, including American-made components I’d never seen in Syria before, all serving one huge domain. They were using this technology to track activists’ IP addresses, so the police and army could locate their homes.”
Weapon in the war
Ahmad found it difficult to say no. He was offered “good money” and the option to avoid doing two years of compulsory military service. But he couldn’t bring himself to be a weapon in the war against his fellow Syrians and in the end declined the offer. A few days later, at a get-together with six former classmates, Ahmad told them about his experience. They too said they had been approached and had refused to help. “I said to my friends: ‘Isn’t there something we can do to counter them?’”
Resolved to take action, the group began by hacking the Facebook pages of regime sympathisers and placing pictures of the revolution on their masthead. They would also try to protect anti-regime activists who had been arrested by hacking into their Facebook and Skype accounts, removing anything incriminating and littering the pages with hardcore pornography, “to distract the investigating officers for at least an hour!” he laughed.
Meanwhile, the young software expert also made contact with a group called “The Falcons of Damascus”. They planned to use their programming skills to feed viruses into pro-regime media and replace official news with their own messages of resistance.