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August 19, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1009

Syrian Electronic Army Uses Social Media – Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Pinterest, Smartphone Apps – To Communicate, Spread News Of Its Hacks And Its Mission, And Recruit Volunteers

August 19, 2013 | By Steven Stalinsky and R. Sosnow*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1009

Introduction

On August 15, 2013, the Syrian Electronic Army hacked the websites of CNN, Time, and the Washington Post, announcing on its Twitter account that it had done so "in one strike."[1]


Image source: Washington Post, August 15, 2013.

This is not the first time that the SEA has made headlines. On April 23, 2013, the SEA hacked the official Twitter account of the AP, which has nearly 2 million followers, tweeting "Breaking: Two explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured." The Dow Jones immediately dropped some 150 points, and $136 billion in equity market value was erased before it became known that the tweet was fake.[2]


The April 23, 2013 fake AP tweet.[3]

The day after the hack, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in response to questions about the incident: "In this case, the misinformation was corrected very quickly, which was a good thing. But obviously this incident is an example of why the public and private sector must continue to work together to promote norms of behavior in cyberspace and to protect ourselves against malicious actions."[4]

In 2013, the SEA has hacked numerous high-profile social media accounts and websites associated with major news and human rights organizations: on January 9, the Saudi Defense Ministry and other Saudi government websites;[5] on March 17, Human Rights Watch;[6] on March 21, the BBC;[7] on April 16, NPR;[8] on April 21, CBS;[9] on April 23, AP, as mentioned above; on April 29, The Guardian;[10] on May 17, Financial Times;[11] on May 26, Sky's Android Apps and Twitter account;[12] and in July, @Thomsonreuters,[13] Truecaller, Tango, and Viber,[14] and the Twitter accounts of several White House staffers.[15]

What Is The SEA?

The Syrian Electronic Army's official website, SEA.sy, states in English that it was created in 2011 "when the Arab media and Western [media] started bias in favor of terrorist groups that have killed civilians [and] the Syrian Arab Army, and [destroyed] private and public property."[16]

An SEA member told the website vice.com: "We're all Syrian youths who each have our specialized computer skills, such as hacking and graphic design. Our mission is to defend our proud and beloved country Syria against a bloody media war that has been waged against her. The controlled media of certain countries continues to publish lies and fabricated news about Syria."[17]

The Syrian Computer Society, which was headed by Bashar Al-Assad before he became president in 2000, and which is Syria's domain registration authority and regulates the Internet within Syria, and is also believed to be connected to Syria's state security apparatus, registered .sy domain names for the Syrian Electronic Army's servers, giving the hacker group a national-level domain name (sea.sy) rather than a .com or other non-government address, signifying its status as at least a state-supervised operation.[18]

Defectors from inside the SEA say that the group moved from Damascus to Dubai, although some pro-regime volunteers remain inside Syria.[19] It is hosted in Syria.[20]

The website also features two "martyrs," "Martyr Mohammed Qabbani and "Martyr Lorans Barakat," with a photo of each.

According to the group's official website,[21] its hackers are organized into battalions. Three battalions are shown on the website are "Th3 Pr0,""The Shadow," and "Vict0r."

Th3 Pr0

The first of these, Th3 Pr0, appears to be not a battalion but an individual who, according to their website,[22] is 19 years old and a leader of the SEA's "Special Operations Division." and has claimed that they "used to be a hacker before I joined the SEA."[23] They have an extensive online presence, with accounts on Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Flickr, Foursquare, and Instagram.[24]

The Shadow

According to their LinkedIn account,[25] The Shadow, who is also presented as a "battalion" on the SEA website, appears to be an individual, who claims to be 24, and, like Th3 Pr0, a leader of the SEA's Special Operations Division. They state that they are in "Civil Engineering," and under "Education" they write "Hafez Al-Assad" and "Hafez Assad school learning what not learning foreign." They state that they have been with the SEA since April 2011.

Vict0r

On its Twitter page (@ViCt0r_SEA), Vict0r, which, like Th3 Pr0 and The Shadow, also appears to be an individual and not a "battalion," states that they are "Member of Special Operations Department (SOD) in Syrian Electronic Army Team." The last tweet from this account was on June 19. "Vict0r Battalion" maintains a Facebook page[26], where it posts about SEA hacks. According to the Facebook page, Vict0r Battalion also has a website, but this site appears to be no longer in operation.

The SEA-Syrian Regime Connection

Though there is no explicit known connection between the SEA and the Syrian regime, the regime is believed to be behind the SEA's activities and has recognized its legitimacy.

In a June 2011 speech at Damascus University, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad compared online warriors to his military: "The army consists of the brothers of every Syrian citizen... Young people have an important role to play at this stage, because they have proven themselves to be an active power." [27] He added, "There is the electronic army, which has been a real army in virtual reality."[28]

For their part, SEA leaders also have been outspoken in their approval of Assad. In an interview, in response to the question, "If Bashar Al-Assad were to lose the conflict in Syria, would the SEA continue?" Th3 Pr0 replied: "[If] the President lose then Syrian and the Syrian people will lose, but Syria will not lose... the right never lose."[29]

The SEA On Social Media

The SEA is active on U.S. social media accounts, including Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, and smartphone apps.

The group also appeals on its website for volunteers to promote and aid its cause using social media.

The SEA Calls For Volunteers To Promote It On Social Media

The SEA appeal for volunteers appears on both its Arabic and English-language websites. The English version reads:[30] "Contribute with us in supporting the cause of the Syrian Arab people by educating yourselves to counter the campaigns led by the Arab and Western media on our Republic, through broadcasting fabricated news about what is really going on in Syria. You can join our pages on social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter or share videos from our YouTube page by clicking on the links below."


"Volunteering in the SEA," accessed August 16, 2013.

The SEA On Twitter

They Syrian Electronic Army's current Twitter account, @Official_sea16, was created August 1, 2013, and as of today has posted 54 tweets and has 538 followers. The previous SEA account, which was shut down July 31, 2013, had 380 tweets and 17 followers. It writes in both English and Arabic. The first post on the new account refers to the shutdown of the previous account, stating: "So @Twitter did the @whitehouse gave you an order to suspend the #SEA account again? anyway.. the war is started :)."

The majority of the tweets on SEA's past accounts, as on this one, concerned SEA cyber activity. The group also posted email addresses, account information, and passwords of their hacking victims.


"Actually it was only one step to hack the white house website, but it was failed because of a mistake." (July 29, 2013)


"White House (@Whitehouse) #Hoosuite account|newmedai@who.eop.gov Old-Password: Password12 #SEA #Syria" (July 30, 2013)

The SEA On YouTube

The official SEA YouTube channel, youtube.com/Syrianes, created June 7, 2011, has to date uploaded over 100 videos, and has 2,422 subscribers and nearly 1 million views. Its channel features mostly videos of pro-Assad rallies, of speeches by Assad, of Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, and of footage of the ongoing hostilities in Syria. The videos are mainly in Arabic, though several are in English or Spanish; many have the SEA logo on the top right screen.


From the SEA YouTube channel: Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and the late president Hafez Al-Assad.

The SEA On Instagram

The SEA's Instagram account, Instagram.com/Official_sea, was created March 24, 2013. As of this writing, it has 60 posts and 630 followers; most of the images it posts are of logos of its victims, articles by and about it and about its hacks, details about its hacks, and content from supporters.


Logos of two of SEA's hacking victims, from SEA Instagram page

The SEA On Facebook


Facebook.com/SEA.P.218, accessed August 16, 2013

The SEA has had several official Facebook accounts; many of these have been shut down. Its most recent account, facebook.com/SEA.P.218, was created August 16, 2013 and as of this writing has 971 "likes."

A previous account, facebook.com/SEA.215, created July 28, 2013, had as of August 1 2,048 likes and dozens of posts in Arabic, with links to its website and to pro-Assad propaganda. As of this writing, this page is shut down.


Facebook.com/SEA.215, accessed August 1, 2013.


Images posted on facebook.com/SEA.215, accessed August 1, 2013.

The SEA On Google+

The SEA's Google+ account, in the name of "Syrian Electronic Army"[31] was created June 30, 2013, and has 100 followers and 27 posts. On this page, the SEA posts mainly links to reports on their website and Facebook pages, and it also links to its accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest.

The SEA On Pinterest


The SEA's Pinterest account, "Syrian Electronic Army," pinterest.com/officialsea/boards/, was created June, 2013, and has 176 followers and 20 pins. The account pins images and links to articles about the SEA. The motto atop the page reads "Nation, Honor, Loyalty."

SEA Smartphone App


Images from the smartphone app, from Instagram page, accessed August 1, 2013.

On its website, the SEA presents its app for Android smartphones as one way to access its content via social media – Facebook, Google+, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest.


Notice on the SEA website, accessed August 1, 2013.

However, SEA apps for both Android and Apple are currently unavailable.

* Steven Stalinsky is Executive Director of MEMRI; R. Sosnow is Head Editor at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] Washington Post, April 23, 2013.

[2] Washington Post, April 23, 2013.

[3] Washington Post, April 23, 2013.

[4] Whitehouse.gov, April 24, 2013.

[5] Softpedia.com, January 9, 2013.

[6] Washington Post, March 17, 2013.

[7] Cnet.com, March 21, 2013.

[8] NPR.org, April 16, 2013.

[9] Softpedia.com, April 22, 2013, Independent.co.uk, April 21, 2013.

[10] The Guardian, April 29, 2013.

[11] PCmag.com, May 17, 2013.

[12] Cnet.com, May 26, 2013.

[13] Cnet.com, July 29, 2013.

[14] Fireeye.com, July 30, 2013.

[15] PCmag,com, July 30, 2013.

[16] sea.sy/article/id/190/en, accessed August 16, 2013.

[17] The Guardian, April 29, 2013.

[18] Arstechnica.com, May 8, 2013.

[19] The Guardian, April 29, 2013.

[20] The Guardian, April 29, 2013.

[21] sea.sy/index/en, accessed August 16, 2013.

[22] about.me/Th3Pr0, accessed August 16, 2013.

[23] Businessinsider.com, April 30, 2013.

[24] about.me/Th3Pr0, accessed August 16, 2013.

[25] linkedin.com/pub/the-shadow/50/702/90b, accessed August 16, 2013

[26] Facebook.com/SEA.Vict0r.2, accessed August 16, 2013.

[27] The Guardian, April 29, 2013.

[28] Al-Bab.com, June 20, 2011; youtube.com/watch?v=k9sugbiy4UI, accessed August 16, 2013.

[29] Businessinsider.com, April 30, 2013.

[30] sea.sy/index/en, accessed August 16, 2013.

[31] plus.google.com/u/0/108651541481300316555/posts, accessed August 16, 2013.

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