- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 27, 2011

BEIRUT (AP) - While Syrian protesters and security forces are engaged in a war of attrition on the ground, a different kind of battle is emerging online.

Pro- and anti-government activists in Syria are increasingly turning to the Internet, hacking and defacing websites in an attempt to win a public relations victory.

Shadowy online activist groups have hacked into at least 12 Syrian government websites in recent days, replacing their content with interactive maps and statements detailing atrocities by security forces against protesters.

The groups say their actions are in response to the regime’s tactics.

Since early in the uprising, a group of pro-government hackers known as the Syrian Electronic Army has used the Internet to attack opposition activists and their perceived backers, flooding Facebook and other social networking sites with pro-regime messages like ‘I love Bashar’ or other. often threatening, statements.

On Monday, pro-Assad hackers briefly defaced Harvard University’s website, replacing the home page with an image of Assad together with a message accusing the U.S. of supporting the uprising against him and threatening retaliation.

The hackers posted a message claiming “Syrian Electronic Army were here.”

Harvard spokesman John Longrake said the attack appeared to be the work of “a sophisticated individual or group.”

Other websites or Facebook pages reportedly targeted by the group include those of Oprah Winfrey, Newsweek magazine and Brad Pitt. Pitt’s partner, Angelina Jolie, is a U.N. goodwill ambassador who visited thousands of Syrian refugees in Turkey in June.

“The Syrian Electronic Army has been trying to root out prominent activists in Syria and recent evidence suggests it has begun waging cyber-war against entities from countries that oppose the regime,” said Anthony Skinner, associate director at Maplecroft, a British-based risk analysis company.

The Syrian Electronic Army claims on its Facebook page that it has no affiliation with the Assad regime and was founded by ordinary Syrians who want to defend the country against “fabrications and distortions of events in Syria.”

But anti-government activists say they are certain the group was formed by Syrian intelligence agents and die-hard Assad supporters and volunteers.

Assad praised their efforts in a speech in June in which he lauded the role of young people in the effort, describing the group as a “real army in a virtual reality.”

The group’s actions were damaging at first, said Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, a grass roots anti-government activist group. But the impact of the online attacks has been limited since counterattacks were launched by the hacker group Anonymous as well as two other loose groupings of hackers made up mostly of Syrian activists, the so-called Free Hackers Union and RevoluSec.

“It is an electronic war. It’s legitimate. As long as it isn’t hurting anyone, we are ready to wage it until the end,” Idilbi said.

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