Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Emergence of Open and Organized Pro-Government Cyber Attacks in the Middle East: The Case of the Syrian Electronic Army



Since the beginning of the popular uprisings and protests in the Middle East and North Africa, events in the region have been characterized by increased contestation in cyberspace among regime sympathizers, governments, and opposition movements. One component of this contestation is the tendency among governments and networks of citizens supportive of the state to use offensive computer network attacks. Such tactics are supplements to legal, regulatory, and other controls, and technical forms of Internet censorship.

For example, a group known as the Iranian Cyber Army has defaced Twitter and Iranian opposition websites. Also, Tunisian political activists and Yemeni oppositional websites have both accused their government security organizations of launching attacks on their sites in an attempt to silence their message and deny access to their content.

In this report, we document the activities of the Syrian Electronic Army, which appears to be a case of an open and organized pro-government computer attack group that is actively targeting political opposition and Western websites. Our aim is to assess to what extent we can find evidence of Syrian government assistance for the attack groups, and what the significance of the attacks themselves are for civil society and cyberspace contestation.


Syria has become the first Arab country to have a public Internet Army hosted on its national networks to openly launch cyber attacks on its enemies. The intensity and scope of the Syrian Electronic Army’s activities signal an interesting development in the Syrian pro-regime Internet arena: In addition to being one of the most repressive Internet censors in the region, the local media, some of which is government-run is apparently supporting the Army’s orchestrated aggressive efforts to attack, by means of website defacements and comment spamming, political opposition and Western websites.

The Syrian Electronic Army claims on its website that it was founded by a team of young Syrian enthusiasts who did not want to stay passive “towards the fabrication of facts on the events in Syria.” Information Warfare Monitor (IWM) research found that the group has a connection with the Syrian Computer Society, which was headed in the 1990s by the current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before he became president.

The Army has been attacking and defacing Syrian oppositional and “hostile Western news” websites. However, IWM found that some of the targeted Western websites are actually not news websites but rather non-political commercial websites. Although Facebook has been disabling the Army’s Facebook pages, the Army has been creating alternative pages and has been actively spamming popular and political Facebook pages with highly repetitive and orchestrated pro-regime comments.

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