Syria’s pro-Assad hackers are hijacking high-profile Twitter feeds

April 22, 2013

The Syrian Electronic Army, an informal network of hackers who wage cyberwar in support of the Syrian government and President Bashar al-Assad, have found yet another way to harass Western Web users. Hackers identifying as part of the Syrian Electronic Army have hijacked a series of Twitter feeds over the last few weeks. The targeted feeds tend to be associated with Western organizations, particularly ones that somehow cover Syria.

Last month, hackers took over the Twitter feed and Web site for Human Rights Watch, disseminating the unsubtle message "Syrian Electronic Army Was Here." Last week, they hacked into National Public Radio's site and its Twitter feeds, criticizing NPR's coverage of the Syrian civil war.

On Saturday, hackers identifying as members of the Syrian Electronic Army defaced four Twitter accounts owned by CBS News, including the "60 Minutes" account, which had 320,000 followers until it was disabled by Twitter in apparent response to the hacks. The messages were among some of the pro-Assad hackers' most elaborate, a long string of messages that accused the United States of supporting terrorism in Syria as part of a larger plot to impose a one-world government.

The hackers used the "60 Minutes" feed to implore regular Americans to rise up against their government and support Assad, purportedly for the good of the world. They also suggested that the Boston marathon bombing was actually conducted by the U.S. government, and that President Obama is secretly planning to become a dictator once he finishes taking away Americans' guns. (It's ironic that pro-Assad hackers would seemingly oppose gun control, given that they consider armed Syrian citizens to be terrorists.) Here are two screenshots of the "60 Minutes" tweets, which have since been removed:

On Monday, hackers associated with the Free Syrian Army seized Twitter accounts belonging to the International Football Association (FIFA), including @FIFAWorldCup and @SeppBlatter, which belongs to FIFA President Joseph Blatter. They're not typical targets for the hackers, who have previously focused on media organizations or watchdog groups that cover Syria.

One possible connection might be Qatar, which was recently awarded the privilege of hosting the 2022 World Cup and whose government is considered a supporter of Syrian rebels. The first hacked message on the @SeppBlatter account showed a photo of Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani along with the message "#Bribery #Murderer #Thief #Qatar." Later messages mocked Twitter for its efforts to contain the pro-Syrian hackers.

In a 2011 profile of the Syrian Electronic Army, Jared Keller and I found no evidence of a clear connection to the Syrian regime, although Assad once mentioned the group in a speech. But it appears to be composed of professional-quality hackers, who may or may not be paid, as well as a number of earnest volunteers. Interestingly, the group doesn't appear to differentiate between Syrian rebels and foreign groups that merely cover the conflict, considering the latter to be part of a larger, global enemy.

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Max Fisher · April 22, 2013