The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Post just got hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army. Here’s who they are.

SEA bragging about taking out Outbrain (Twitter)

So, you may have heard we're having some problems with the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) lately. Earlier this week the Twitter account of one of our journalists was compromised as part of a larger attack aimed at social media management group SocialFlow, and Thursday an attack on content recommendation service Outbrain caused some of our stories to redirect to the the SEA homepage.

Who is the Syrian Electronic Army?

The SEA is a group of computer hackers who support embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It initially emerged in April 2011 during the rise of anti-regime protests in Syria.

Are they supported by the Assad regime?

Probably not. While Assad has a background in computing, and once explicitly referenced his "electronic army," the group's formal ties to the administration are unclear. The quality of their attacks suggest that the SEA includes both professional quality hackers, who might be receiving some form of compensation, and young volunteers who believe in the regime.

Those volunteers might include Syrian diaspora; some of their hacks have used colloquial English and reddit memes. After Washington Post reporter Max Fisher called their jokes unfunny, one hacker associated with the group told a Vice interview "haters gonna hate."

Who has this "army" been attacking?

The group targets both dissidents within Syria and "sympathizers" outside the country. But that "sympathizer" label appears to be applied to anyone who talks about the Syrian conflict in almost any context without expressly endorsing the Assad regime.

Some of the SEA's early activity included spamming pages with pro-Assad comments, but activity later escalated to large scale Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. Those attacks work by jamming Web sites with too many traffic requests and making normal visitors unable to access the page. The group has also battled online with hacker collective Anonymous, who once hacked the Syrian Ministry of Defense Web site.

That doesn't sound very frightening. Have the group's attacks been getting more ambitious?

Yes. Recently, the SEA has been hacking social media accounts and Web sites associated with major news or human-rights organizations. National Public Radio (NPR), the Associated Press (AP), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Al-Jazeera, and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) have all been SEA victims. When they hacked the AP's Twitter handle to say the White House was bombed, and President Obama was injured, the stock market briefly nosedived by $136 billion.

Recently, security researchers say the group has also started to engage in more sophisticated attacks, including using Trojans and and targeting Voice over IP (VOIP) services. Those attacks and this week's Socialflow and Outbrain compromises suggest the SEA may just be getting started.