Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Those observing the protests in Syria, in most cases, need to trawl through social networking websites in order to find out the latest developments in the fierce confrontations that are taking place between the Syrian authorities and the protesters. However what many people are not aware of is that there is an online war taking place on these social networking websites that is no less savage and violent as the confrontation taking place on the ground in Banias and Hama. The Bashar al-Assad regime has utilized the “Shabiha” militia to incite terror amongst the Syrian people; it has also now begun to use an online “Shabiha” on social networking sites which aim to block political dissidents and activists by hacking their accounts, stealing their personal details, and preventing them from communicating with one another and with the outside world.
The “Shabiha” gangsters gained notoriety for the brutal manner in which they enforced the protection racket in Latakia in western Syria in the 1990s. The gang was seemingly disbanded by President Bashar al-Assad after he came to power, yet it appears that al-Assad has called on this militia during his time of need to punish those who have dared to come out and protest against his regime. The Shabiha has variously been described as a “gang” and an “armed militia” and is primarily made up of Alawite Shiites, the same sect of the ruling elite in Syria. However we are now seeing the “Shabiha” activity spread from the Syrian street, to Syria’s online community.
This virtual Syrian army is active on Facebook and other social networking and micro-blogging websites, aiming not just to convince and attempt to win over Syrian dissidents, but also to hack the accounts of political activists. The so-called “Syrian Electronic Army” [SEA] has been successful in hacking and defacing websites, web-pages, and Facebook groups set up by the Syrian opposition.
SEA has claimed responsibility for defacing 41 websites, a number of which had British domain names, including even one UK governmental website. On its official website, SEA announced that it had hacked the British websites because of British governmental policies towards Syria. In an address to “the Great British people”, SEA said “we are sorry to destroy your [web] sites, but your government’s policies and the interfere [sic] in our interior affairs forced us to hack your official [web] sites so you will be able to listen to our voices live from Syria…we love our country and we love our President Bashar al-Assad and we will not allow anyone to interfere in our internal affairs.”
SEA claims to be a “group of enthusiastic Syrian youth who could not stay passive towards the massive distortion of facts about the recent uprising in Syria” adding that “the distortion is carried out by many Facebook pages that deliberately work to spread hatred and sectarian intolerance between the people of Syria to fuel the uprising.”
SEA also hacked the Facebook account of prominent Syrian legal activist Hiam Gamil, blocking her account and thereby preventing her from taking part in the intellectual struggle against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Her account was finally restored with the help of computer technicians that support the Syrian revolution. Similarly, the Facebook account of well-known Syrian human rights activist Suhair al-Atassi was also hacked, with pro-government elements hacking her account and posting pro-Bashar al-Assad slogans.
At the time that this article went to press, SEA’s official website had more than 7,000 members, and more than 269,000 hits. As for the group’s objectives, SEA says that “our first goal was to show the world the truth about the ‘Syrian Revolution’ which can be more accurately described as an armed insurrection that seeks to lead Syria into a dreadful anarchy” adding that “unfortunately, we discovered that what we used to call ‘independent and professional” media agencies and channels turned out to be biased…and to have certain political agendas to follow and promote.”
SEA stressed that “we will always remain Syria’s loyal soldiers, ready to fight for it in any way possible, and absolutely against any attempts to weaken it.” The group added that “our vow is: we swear by Almighty God to remain faithful to Syria, it’s people, and Bashar al-Assad…we swear to remain united, our religion is Syria…and our goal is to make Syria prevail. We are ready to sacrifice that which is dearest and most precious to defend it [Syria], and God is our witness! Long live Syria, its President [Bashar al-Assad], and its Electronic Army.”
However the pro-Assad SEA has given rise to an opposing online faction, namely the pro-revolutionary “Syrian Hackers” group, which seems to be linked to the “Anonymous” hackers collective. The “Syrian Hackers” Facebook page includes an icon of the Anonymous symbol of the “suit without a head” a reference to the group’s “leaderless resistance” in addition to the Anonymous slogan “We do not forget. We do not forgive. We are legion.’ This Facebook page also includes a list of Syrian pro-regime websites that have been hacked or defaced.
Replying to an email from Asharq Al-Awsat, one of the “Syrian Hackers” based in Damascus said that “the regime is using an online Shabiha to suppress our online resistance. We will not remain silent. We will bring down all the websites affiliated to the Syrian regime [in response to this].”
Asharq Al-Awsat also spoke with self proclaimed Syrian “cyber activist” Rami Nakhle, who was known only by the nom de guerre Malath Omran until his identity was revealed recently. He stressed that “the online Shabiha activity ranges from strong dialogue with the online pro-revolutionaries, to hacking our personal accounts and defacing our websites.” As for how SEA and others go about defacing, and even shutting down, pro-revolutionary websites, Nakhle informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “every website can handle a certain level of internet traffic, however if this exceeds the limit then the website crashes.” He added that “there is another method they use; they complain to the Facebook administrators that our website, for example, violates public morals.”
The Syrian revolution has been gaining momentum and intensifying, and the violence has now spread into the virtual world, with pro and anti-Assad hackers attacking and opposing one another online. So what next for the Syrian revolution?