Pro-regime Syrian hacker brigade, the Syrian Electronic Army, which has successfully attacked Western media companies, Friday warned of more cyberattacks if U.S. officials go ahead with expected military action against Damascus.
An anonymous spokesman for the group, which has successfully attacked the New York Times, the Washington Post and Twitter, said that it still had “many surprises” in store.
And the group has already pledged to broaden its targets from the media companies it has attacked so far, if the United States strikes Syria to punish the regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons.
The spokesman was interviewed via email by the BBC following the British Parliament’s vote against military intervention on Thursday.
The group, which claims to consist of hacker activists acting independently of the regime, borrowed from the rhetoric of foundational hacktivist movement Anonymous, when its spokesman warned media companies: “Expect us.”
That was likely deliberate. The Syrian Electronic Army has aped the PR tactics of the loose anarchistic online coalition Anonymous — using Twitter to claim attacks and taunt its targets and establishing websites to promote itself.
“Our main mission is to spread truth about Syria and what is really happening.”
The army has successfully attacked Western media companies, including the BBC itself, this year. Most damagingly, it hacked the Twitter feed of the Associated Press, posting a fake story about an explosion at the White House that sent stock prices briefly tumbling.
This week, the group successfully knocked the New York Times’ own website offline, by hacking the Melbourne, Australia based company that manages its domain name, NYTimes.com.
But in an email statement to Reuters Wednesday, the group said if the U.S. military moves against Syria “our targets will be different.”
“Everything will be possible if the U.S. begins hostile military actions against Syria,” the group said.
Most security experts say that the group at the moment apparently lacks the skills to carry out the most advanced and dangerous kinds of attacks — those aimed at the computerized control systems running transportation systems, chemical plants, oil refineries and water systems — which can cause real-world damage.
The successful Syrian Electronic Army attacks that have been publicly dissected mainly have relied on carefully targeted emails known as “spear-phishing” attacks. Hackers will “spoof” the address to make the message look as if it comes from a real colleague or associate, or a major business like a bank or car-rental company.
But links in the email direct the user and his computer to a fake website where either logins and passwords can be stolen, if users enter them; or where malicious software can be automatically downloaded to any visiting computer, especially if it is not fully patched.
Experts say the efficacy of spear-phishing attacks depends less on the software used and more on how good the “social engineering,” or human part, of the attack is. Does the email really look as if it comes from someone known to the recipient? Is the English in it fluent and colloquial, or broken and stilted? Is the fake website a convincing facsimile of the real one?
They require relatively little technical skill.
In some attacks, the army’s hackers have ingeniously exploited the outsourcing that most media companies do to maintain their top-of-the-line interactive and audio visual websites.
But other experts caution that it is easy to rent technology or hire talent to improve a group’s hacking prowess They also point out that Iran, Syria’s only remaining ally in the region, has a much more developed cyberwar capability and might be a part of any retaliatory strike across the Internet.
Thursday, security specialists began to name individual administrators of the Syrian Electronic Army they had traced through a trove of data hacked from the army’s own website, after it was booted from its U.S. Internet provider.
Mohamad Abd al-Karem, a computer graphics designer living in Syria, was named by noted security blogger Brian Krebs, who said he traced Mr. al-Karem through an email address used to register a website for the Syrian Electronic Army, which in turn linked to other email and social media accounts, including a Facebook page under the name Mohammed Osman.
Mr. al-Karem told The Washington Times in a brief e-mail that he was not in any way affiliated with the group.
“I am not one of them,” he said via email. Someone using Mr. Osman’s email address also denied being either Mr. al-Karem, or associated with the army.
The group’s spokesman dismissed Mr. Krebs reporting, saying that “they keep publishing names so they can get attention.”
The group also dismissed reporting earlier this year by the Guardian newspaper in Britain, which said the group was based in the United Arab Emirates and funded by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad, and the owner of SyriaTel, a telecommunications and internet service provider.
“Our work doesn’t need funds. It just needs a computer and internet connection,” the spokesman said.