From wiping $136 billion off the US stock market to forcing spoof news site The Onion to turn serious, the Syrian Electronic Army are an emerging force in the conflict that has killed over 70,000 people. The pro-regime hackers have attacked hundreds of high-profile targets from the BBC to FIFA chief Sepp Blatter, but little is known about the group.
“The central mission of the S.E.A. is to defend the Syrian nation against the vicious lying media campaign launched by more than half of the world,” a spokesperson for the group told Metro. “We have not attacked any website or social media account that has displayed neutrality when covering the war on Syria. Unfortunately, these are very few.”
Launched quietly in 2011 from a Facebook group, the S.E.A. has become an efficient network for creating chaos. Composed “mostly of students and youth, with members of the Syrian Arab Army”, according to the source, the group also benefits from chapters in the US and Europe. Boasting thousands of members, they have been able to dominate web discourse of the conflict.
The S.E.A.’s growing power was shown by an April hack of the Associated Press Twitter feed, from which they announced “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured”, causing a nosedive in the Dow Jones stock index. “The best so far, but the attacks in the pipeline will be even better,” said the spokesperson.
The Onion fought back after suffering a similar attack, publishing a guide to S.E.A. methods, which it claimed could be easily defended. However, further attacks on Sky News in May support the hackers’ claim that they have more sophisticated tactics.
Asked whether they supported President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on protestors, the S.E.A. said they “could criticize specific actions but whatever mistakes don’t justify the animalism displayed by the opposition.” They categorically denied receiving support from, or being close to, the regime.
This is disputed by experts. “I think the S.E.A. is close enough to the regime to be able to operate freely in a country that is known for its restrictive measures on internet activities and information flow,” said Helmi Noman, senior researcher at Citizen Lab who has studied the group since 2011. “The Syrian state TV has broadcast programs covering the activities of the S.E.A. S.E.A. members appeared in these programs…so the group members are known and reachable to the Syrian media.”
Syrian activist Amjad Baiazy, a former prisoner of the regime and academic researcher, goes further. “We know they are operating from Students’ Union buildings which are like a syndicate for the government. The regime relies on the S.E.A. for intelligence on opposition activists, gathering evidence for them to make arrests,” he told Metro.
Based on interviews with S.E.A. operatives, Baiazy estimates there are over 5,000 members, with a high level of training and funding. “There has been a surge in quantity and quality, and reports of funding from Iran and Russia. They are now a major asset for Assad.”