- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2011

Hackers supporting Syria’s anti-government protesters attacked 10 websites belonging to central or local government ministries, spreading the six month-long bloody rebellion against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad into cyberspace over the weekend.

They replaced the websites’ home pages with caricatures of Mr. Assad, videos of protesters, an interactive map showing the names of protesters killed by the Syrian military and links to a page with tips on how to avoid online surveillance by Syria’s intelligence agencies.

“These were beautifully done, skillful hacks,” Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Washington Times.

The home pages of the Syrian labor and transportation ministries were replaced by a caricature of Mr. Assad, with a snakelike neck and the caption in Arabic:

“Don’t let Bashar monitor you online.”

The page also contained a link to a set of tips for protesters on avoiding online surveillance by the regime.

Caricatures of Mr. Assad - like most forms of political expression - are illegal under Syria’s emergency law.

The home page of the Ministry of Culture on Sunday showed amateur videos, including one of a popular singer with his throat cut, and another of a respected political cartoonist whose hands were broken. Both attacks were reportedly carried out by pro-government thugs.

The home pages of the seven largest municipalities in Syria were all replaced with an interactive map with the names of more than 2,300 protesters reportedly killed by the regime since the protests began in March.

By Monday afternoon, the central government websites had been repaired and the municipal ones taken off-line altogether.

Ms. York said that, because of the “impeccable English” and high levels of technical skills used by the hackers, “I strongly suspect they had coordinated support from outside Syria.”

“They were definitely executed with more sophistication” than similar hacks on Tunisian government sites earlier this year during the protest wave in that country, she said.

She added that the Syrian attacks looked to her like the work of “people skilled in graphic design, not just hacking.”

The hacks, carried out Sunday, were claimed by the online collective known as Anonymous. Members of the group are being hunted by the FBI and European law enforcement agencies for their illegal hacking activities.

Last year, for instance, the group launched online hacking campaigns in support of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, targeting financial and government websites in Europe and the United States.

However Ms. York cautioned that, given the very loose nature of the online collective, it is hard to know if the same individuals were involved in the pro-WikiLeaks and anti-Syrian regime attacks.

“Anonymous is incredibly distributed,” she said. “There’s a lot of debate within the organization about which targets to pick.”

Just because something is done in Anonymous’ name, she concluded, “doesn’t mean there’s unequivocal support for it” from everyone who calls themselves a member.

The hackers’ online assault on the regime comes after months of attacks against protesters’ websites by the so-called Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a group of hackers embraced and supported - if not actually organized by - the Syrian government.

In May, the SEA launched what observers say was the most aggressive and visible cyber offensive yet seen against Arab Spring protesters in any country. It targeted Facebook pages and other Web sites used to organize anti-Syrian government activities.

In a speech June 21, Mr. Assad embraced the SEA, calling it “a real army in virtual reality.” He compared its members to those who volunteered for the Syrian military or gave blood in state-sponsored blood drives.

The SEA is widely believed to be behind a series of efforts to steal protesters’ log-in information so their communications can be surveilled. It has launched attacks on independent media websites, including Al-Jazeera and the British Broadcasting Corp., which have carried news of the government’s crackdown against protestors.