Online pirate army fights for downfall of Assad

Wed, Dec 19, 2012, 00:00

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.

But they lacked the expertise to produce the relevant software. So Ahmad designed a “Trojan Horse” virus and passed it on to the Falcons, who were then able to get inside Addounia TV, the most popular broadcaster in the country and a staunchly pro-regime outlet.

On February 3rd, 2012 they got into the channel’s text service and, just as the anchor woman went on air to read the news, they placed a text banner below her stating: “Breaking News: Bashar al-Assad has decided to step down for the good of his people.”

In total, Ahmad claims, his group in Aleppo hacked into Addounia 13 times.

Mocked-up image

In April they managed to penetrate the state broadcaster’s security, interrupting the evening news with their own video package featuring a mocked-up image of Bashar al-Assad sporting a pair of cartoonish black, round spectacles and prominent buck teeth, followed by footage of a regime attack on an ambulance. The voiceover informed viewers: “From the sons of Syria: the regime bombs and burns ambulances. We will expose them and we promise that we will never, ever forget.”

The group also hacked into the official website of Dr Ahmed Hassoun, the regime’s supreme spiritual leader, who had recently issued a fatwa on the demonstrators. They replaced flash images of the preacher smiling beatifically alongside excerpts from the Koran with red text on a black border which read simply: “This is the site of Syria’s Number One Liar. The Syrian people spit on you!”

For their part, the regime’s own electronic army also got busy, hacking into the Twitter feed of Al-Arabiya, one of the leading satellite news channels in the Middle East, and posting news that Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, the prime minister of Qatar and an open supporter of the rebels, had been relieved of his position by the country’s heir apparent.

Hacked websites

The so-called E-Army went on to hack the web pages of Reuters news agency and of Harvard University, as well as placing false reports of an assassination attempt against the Qatari premier on Al Jazeera’s text news service. They even hacked 23 UK government and business websites “because of the bad stand of the British government on Syria”.

As the Free Syrian Army entered Aleppo, Ahmad felt that this was the moment for him to get out. Fearful of getting caught in the crossfire, in August he crossed over the Turkish border.

Now alone, he lives out of a suitcase from hotel room to hotel room and had been keeping a low profile until he logged onto the E-Army’s website and found the challenge too much to bear.

“I’ve got my pirate software at the ready,” he said, as he sat back down at his computer. But after an unsuccessful all-night attempt to break through the site’s sophisticated security, Ahmad realised that one man cannot take on an army and sent an email to a group of Saudi hackers requesting their support. The response came back immediately: “We’re ready when you are, Harvester!”