The Washington Post

Why the Syrian Electronic Army loves to hack the American media

This image replaced the New York Times home page for many Web users on Monday. (Screenshot)

The New York Times Web site went down on Tuesday afternoon in an external cyber attack that appears most likely committed by the Syrian Electronic Army. The informal pro-Assad hacker collective has made a habit of targeting prominent Western media outlets, typically by seizing their Twitter feeds but sometimes hitting their sites as well. They've gone after the Associated Press, Washington Post, Agence France-Presse, 60 Minutes, CBS News, National Public Radio, even the Onion.

So why do they do it? The group appears, based on its past attacks, to have pretty simple motivations: attention for itself and punishment for Western media organization they perceive as biased against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian Electronic Army actually makes a lot more sense if you think of them as pranksters who also happen to love Assad than as state-aligned hackers in pursuit of concrete goals.

The effect of the hacks is typically not to steal information or sabotage institutions, but rather to hijack the targeted outlet for a few minutes, plastering it with the group's message and perhaps some condemnation of U.S. policy toward Syria. Their hacking power seems to exist purely to demonstrate their hacking power, taking down popular sites purely to claim credit for it. To paraphrase the great Web comic XKCD, it's less like breaking into the New York Times than defacing the New York Times.

Past hacks have posted social media "memes" or other large-font messages, typically in colloquial English, lampooning Western media and fist-pumping on behalf of the Assad regime. It's yet another indication that the Syrian Electronic Army is far from some Damascus-run formal Syrian enterprise, but more likely an informal network of young volunteer hackers; slacktivists for a bad cause.

As my colleague Caitlin Dewey has written, hacks like this are good for publicity – the SEA even released a dramatically soundtracked video of one attack — but they don’t have much staying power because the institutions quickly see the hack and recover. The hacks get a lot of attention and that's pretty much it.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Be a man and cry
Deaf banjo player teaches thousands
Sleep advice you won't find in baby books
Play Videos
Drawing as an act of defiance
A flood of refugees from Syria but only a trickle to America
Chicago's tacos, four ways
Play Videos
What you need to know about filming the police
What you need to know about trans fats
Syrian refugee: 'I’m committed to the power of music'
Play Videos
Riding the X2 with D.C.'s most famous rapper
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul
Europe's migrant crisis, explained
Next Story
Max Fisher · August 27, 2013

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.