The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) most likely began at least in part as an outgrowth of the Syrian Computer Society (SCS), an internet and information science advocacy group founded by the late Basil Al-Assad in 1989, and later led by Bashar Al-Assad prior to his elevation to the presidency. In 1997 there were only 35,000 computers in the country, two for every thousand people. The early days of Syria’s acceptance of the internet were marked by significant bureaucratic trepidation, predominantly motivated by concerns of cultural penetration. The opposing camp was urged onward by a recognition that in the face of heavy usage of the internet by other nations, especially Israel, Syrian perspectives were being drowned out. Surveys conducted in 1998 by an early advocate, Dr. Imad Mustafa, found that of 1.5 million documents on the web dealing with Syrian aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict, 56% had been written by Israeli organizations, 18% by Zionist groups outside of Israel and another 17% were written by US government organizations. On issues rich with nationalistic fervor such as the Golan Heights, the survey found that there were essentially no existing sources or documents on the internet which were benign to Syrian interests, and that 71% of the documents were absolutely hostile to Syrian perspectives. This preoccupation with “correcting” the established media narrative has fed directly into the ethos of the SEA, though they also engage in “punishing” media outlets by propagating false news events.
The personnel evolution of the group can be roughly split into two phases. In the early phase of the group their website from May of 2011, syrian-es.com was hosted by the SCS, and the domain registration pointed to the same group. A later site, sea.sy, was registered with the approval of the SCS. By May of 2013, however, the SCS cut all of these ties and disabled use of the sea.sy site. There may have been significant personnel changes later in the 2011 era, and it is entirely possible that the activists who shared membership in SCS and SEA left at that point. The second phase of the group was much more shadowy, international and varied in their technical aptitude.
The method of attacks has been multi-pronged, from website defacement and redirects, to propaganda posting on facebook, and in some cases campaigns distributing malware (intended to reveal the identity and activity of online actors) against the Syrian Opposition. Recent operations have been heavily focused on compromising social media accounts of news organizations and celebrities.
In April of 2013 SEA conducted spearphishing (directed emails designed to steal user credentials and other data) attacks which resulted in them obtaining control of the Associated Press twitter account, which they used to spread a false story about an explosion at the White House which injured the President.
The tweet caused a temporary drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average of over a hundred points, but AP was quickly able to regain control of their twitter account and retract the false story.
This method of attack has proven to be both high profile and high impact, and the group seems to have generally shifted focus onto compromising social media accounts. These compromises have been varied in intent, from posting false information for shock value to pushing propaganda against perceived international enemies of Syria and Al-Assad. This week there has been a compromise of CNN’s twitter account and website, used both to spread propaganda in favor of Al-Assad and to plant a false news story apparently intended to disrupt financial markets. Increasing attempts to manipulate markets may indicate economic motives behind SEA operations, especially if these actions are combined with short-selling, though this connection would require further analysis for confirmation.
The Syrian Electronic army represents a new type of cyber actor, one which is both a hacktivist group in the vein of Anonymous, and a state sponsored group much like many in operation across the world. However, unlike many hacking groups with state sponsorship, SEA concentrates on propaganda operations instead of espionage for military or economic reasons. In this sense they bear some similarity to groups like the Chinese Honker Union, and Russian hacktivist movements which have surrounded military operations and international controversies in Estonia and Georgia. The funding for the group remains murky. There are allegations that Rami Makhlouf, a billionaire cousin of Bashar Al-Assad, supported the group in leaving Syria and basing their operations in other Arab states, and continues to provide accommodations for group members. There are also rumors that hackers are paid between five hundred and a thousand dollars for successful website compromises.
Dan Gifford – MCySec Media Manager