April 23, 2013 at 7:46 PM ET
A shady group that claims to represent the interests of Syrian al-Assad supporters is raising havoc on the Internet, going so far as to (momentarily) crash the stock market. So who is this Syrian Electronic Army, and what do they want?
On Tuesday, the Syrian Electronic Army claimed credit for hacking the Associated Press' verified Twitter account, which it used to issue a short-lived but potentially disastrous tweet, falsely reporting two explosions at the White House and injury to the president. Though the fraud was quickly exposed, the tweet caused a sudden 140-point dip in the Dow Industrial Average.
The financial losses were immediately recovered, but the impact showed the power of a group that has, up until now, operated on the fringe. The Syrian Electronic Army's stated mission is to attack and deface websites in a fight against anti-Syria media coverage. But its actions cause observers to wonder increasingly aloud whether this is a gang of activists, pranksters or operatives from Syria's al-Assad government itself.
The Syrian Electronic Army describes itself on its website — launched in May 2011, as the Syrian civil war escalated — as "a group of enthusiastic Syrian youths who could not stay passive towards the massive distortion of facts about the recent uprising in Syria." Its targets are not only the websites of media, but social network accounts as well, which it says "deliberately work to spread hatred and sectarian intolerance between the peoples of Syria to fuel the uprising."
In addition to the AP, the hacks the SEA claims credit for include BBC, NPR, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), France 24 TV, Deutsche Welle and other media groups around the world. It also reportedly hacked the website and Twitter feed of Human Rights Watch website.
"The SEA has kind of shifted from actively defacing websites they perceive hostile to the Syrian regime to mostly compromising Twitter accounts of media organizations," said Helmi Noman, Senior Researcher with Citizen Lab, University of Toronto, in an email to NBC News.
Noman, who has been tracking the group for several years, says that as coverage of the Syrian civil war expands, so do the actions of the group. "I am not surprised that the SEA is intensifying its campaign against the media and their Twitter accounts."
President Bashar al-Assad, which the Obama Administration has urged to give up power, has shown support for the SEA, describing the group in a televised address as "a real army in virtual reality."
Such vocal support leads Noman and others to be suspicious. "The challenges for researchers (are) distinguishing between the spontaneous actions of groups of citizens supporting regimes out of their own volition, and those actions which are directed, either formally or informally, by governments," he wrote in 2011.
"Although we have no concrete evidence linking the SEA to the Syrian regime, the president’s statement, and the fact that the group is able to operate with impunity over Syrian networks, shows at least tacit support for their activities," Noman continued.
Twitter, for its part, is currently engaged in a game of virtual "whack a mole" with SEA. On Saturday, Twitter shut down the original SEA Twitter account, @Official_SEA, after SEA compromised Twitter accounts for various CBS properties, including @60Minutes.
So far, as Graham Cluley of Internet security firm Sophos described in a blog post, Twitter has not been successful.
How did the Syrian Electronic Army respond to their Twitter suspension? Well, they created a new account called @SyrianCyberArmy.
And when that one was shut down, they created yet-another-Twitter-account - @SEA_Official3.
Guess what? Yep, that one has been shut down too. And - as certain as night follows day - the SEA responded by creating @Official_SEA5.
You can probably guess what happens next in this story. That's right, @Official_SEA5 was suspended by Twitter.
At the time of this publishing, the latest SEA account, @Official_SEA6, is still live on Twitter.
The SEA's agenda have carried it beyond just sorties against the media.
It recently hijacked Twitter accounts of both the FIFA World Cup and FIFA President Sepp Blatter, in apparent retaliation for the Syrian national team's 2011 dismissal from a qualifying tournament for the 2014 World Cup.
As well as accusing FIFA of corruption through its own Twitter accounts, one message from SEA stated, "The decision to disqualify the Syrian team on a technicality was found to be politically based."
Syrian politics previously also led it into direct clashes with another notorious hacker group, the "Anonymous" collective.
In 2011, after Anonymous claimed victory for taking down the Syria's Ministry of Defense website, SEA responded by attacking properties belonging to Anonymous, in one instance posting gruesome images on a social portal launched by the collective.
Following the 2012 countrywide Internet blackout in Syria that many activists believed was aimed at silencing opposition to the al-Assad government, Anonymous declared that it would bring down websites belonging to the Syrian government outside the country. Soon after, the website for Syria's embassy in Belgium went down, though others were not affected.
As Anonymous and SEA fight their enemies — and occasionally each other — tearing up websites and social accounts in the process, the tagline from the sci-fi B movie "Aliens Vs. Predators" comes to mind: "Whoever wins ... we lose."