Speaking with an Alleged Member of the SEA About the 'Onion' Twitter Hack
May 8 2013
How the SEA made use of their time with the Onion's Twitter account.
Last week, VICE interviewed Th3 Pr0, an alleged member of the hacker group Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) who claims to be the head of their Special Operations division. The SEA are staunch supporters of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. They claim that the rebel forces attempting to overthrow the Syrian government are financed and controlled by Western-backed terrorist factions, including groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra who have been designated a “terrorist organization” by the Obama administration and are in open alliance with al Qaeda. This week, four UN peacekeepers were abducted by al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels, the Martyrs of Yarmouk, in the Israeli-occupied Syrian territory known as the Golan Heights. The knowledge of these nefarious associations, however, has not delayed the United States from aiding the Syrian rebels. US aid in the form of medical supplies and ready-to-eat meals was delivered to the Free Syrian Army in the Aleppo district late last week.
By most estimates the civil war in Syria has already claimed the lives of over 70,000 people, and even with external forces beginning to intervene, there is no end in sight. The fighting won't be confined to physical locations, however, and as with many other conflicts worldwide, cyberspace has become a secondary theater of war. The SEA has been waging war against Western media networks, whom they accuse of distorting facts and facilitating the approval of Western intervention against the Assad regime. To date, they have infiltrated dozens of social-media accounts belonging to numerous news networks, including affiliated accounts of CBS, the Guardian, and the Associated Press, to name a few. As was recently reported, the @AP hack caused a dramatic $136 billion drop in the DOW Jones, after the official Twitter account of the Associated Press tweeted about two explosions at the White House while under SEA control.
This week, the SEA successfully hacked the Twitter account of America's Finest News Source, the Onion, and tweeted numerous messages condemning the UN, the governments of Qatar and Israel, and the CEO of the Onion for "taking zionist money to defame Syria." While the Onion may seem much less relevant than an account like the Associated Press's, in terms of reach, the attack may have been tactical: @TheOnion's following exceeds that of @AP by 2.9 million users, although it wasn't clear if this factored into the SEA's decision to target the Onion. Since the SEA is likely casting a broad net with the use of phishing emails, as opposed to hacking Twitter's servers to gain access, the actions of the Onion's own employees are likely to blame for the security failure. It's also possible the Onion may have made themselves a target last week when they copied and retweeted the hoax @AP message as a kind of “too soon” joke.
BREAKING: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama Is Injured— The Onion (@TheOnion) April 23, 2013
Twitter quickly restored @TheOnion, and their writers immediately went to work on the SEA. An article was published as if written by the SEA that claimed the group intended to hack the Onion website as well, but were turned off by how obsolete the coding was: "We want users to immediately see our message that Zionist-controlled interests are distorting the facts that come out of Syria... And when we looked at the layout of the Onion’s homepage, we immediately realized the huge mistake we’d made."
We decided to touch base with an alleged member of the Syrian Electronic Army once again to learn more about their intentions behind Monday's attack on the Onion. This time we spoke to a person known as the Shadow, who claims to be a hacker, as well as a member of the "Special Operations Division" of the SEA.
VICE: What made you decide to hack the Onion this week after spending so much time targeting serious news organizations?
The Shadow: We are well aware of the satirical nature of the Onion, but this does not detract from the fact that the basis of their "humor" was rooted in the narrative promoted by most major corporate media. What convinced us to make our move was an article titled "The Onion Website Joins the U.S. Anti-Syria Club" by Shamus Cooke that details how the Onion can be a more effective wartime propaganda tool than even "serious" and seemingly credible media. The irresponsible promotion of chemical weapons claims and attribution of all the mayhem in Syria on the one side attempting to keep order is very much an assumption of their focus on Syria. This is why the majority of informed people do not find such articles funny.
Why did you accuse the Onion of taking “Zionist money” in exchange for defaming Syria?
We have various tactics when we penetrate a media outlet. For the Onion, we decided to loosely follow their style. We do not seriously suggest any kind of money transfer from unnamed “Zionist” sources, we realize it is more likely that the Onion follows the corporate line as a matter of ideology. During the Second World War, both the Germans and the Americans used satire to attack one another. The Onion serves the same sort of wartime role that the Disney anti-German short films did back then.
What do you think about the Onion's response?
Many readers found it in poor taste. One Twitter user responded with a simple "yikes." This reaction was exactly what we were hoping for, as the writer placed all their anger in it, dropping the mask of the real situation in Syria. The rebels were depicted in the exact same manner as reality, so it cannot really be classified as satire except with one difference—the Syrian army will win and we don't have a "base" that can be attacked.
We have reports that the internet and phone lines were in a complete shutdown last night in Syria. Is that true?
Unfortunately, it is true, though mobile phones worked intermittently due to a large number of Syrians using them as an alternate form of communication. These kinds of cuts do not affect the terrorists operating in Syria as they have their own US-supplied communication equipment. The blackout effectively shut down our operations, but we are glad to be back.
Can you tell us more about the Israeli air strike in Damascus?
I was asleep during the bombings. I heard some explosions later, although I never saw them. These acts of terror only motivate us to work harder to defend our country on the internet from these terrorists and their masters.
Have the recent attacks by Israel changed the course of the Syrian cyberwar in any specific way?
I cannot comment about this at the current time as not to give any hints to the enemy.
What is the official SEA response to the Israeli strikes?
Again, I cannot comment about this in any specific detail, but they will not be spared from our efforts, just like all sides conspiring against Syria.
Do you feel the situation is getting easier or harder for the Syrian government?
We aren't military or political experts, but the situation does seem to be improving for the government, especially from the general opinions of friends, family, and online contacts. The public awareness of the conspiracy targeting the nation has made the war exponentially easier for the government.
If Israel and the United States become fully involved in the conflict and send troops/fighter jets to attack regime targets, do you still feel confident of winning the war?
If Israel and the United States were fully involved, we would be even more confident in victory, even though it will come at a great cost to the entire planet. At least then the world will share the pain we suffered alone.
In warfare, ideally, both sides would agree that certain actions are illegal. Are there any boundaries in cyberwarfare you feel should be respected? Is there anything you won't hack as a matter of principle?
For sure. The moment when human life is at risk or damage to infrastructure is possible, computer hacking transitions from hacktivism to cyberwarfare or cyberterrorism. Recently, an unknown group pretending to be the SEA hacked into a fictional "Israel Critical Infrastructure" SCADA system. This was attributed to the Syrian Electronic Army, but we never announced it on any of our official mediums. We do not approve of this. If anything, it does not contribute to our cause of showing people the truth. Quite the contrary.
Are there any actions taken by Syrian Arab Army or Shabiha forces that the SEA disapprove of?
First off, we don't recognize the existence of the so-called Shabiha that were popularized by the Al-Jazeera propaganda channel. There is no perfect army in the world, and we cannot claim that every soldier in the Syrian Arab Army adheres to the rules of combat. But overall, we can say with confidence that this is a heroic army who risk their lives for the safety and dignity of our people. We are in no position to criticize specific actions by the army from the safety of our homes. If we may, we would also like to add that many massacres that have been pinned on the Syrian army were in fact committed by the terrorists. Real journalists on the ground like Alex Thomson of Channel 4 have investigated several of these massacres and the locals verified that it was not the army who attacked them.
Many people are suggesting changing the way Twitter works so that there is a two-step verification process to make life harder for the SEA. Would that make life harder for you guys?
It will definitely make it harder on Twitter, but this was never our primary attack vector. Nevertheless, there are still some security holes in Twitter's model that we hope to exploit in the future so no one should get too comfortable; we are not going to give up.
How do you feel about the SEA's work over the last year or so?
Given the fact that we are a voluntary group, that most of us have studies or work to tend to and that many of us live in a warzone, we believe we have done the best that we could. We don't want to disappoint the Syrian people by being too satisfied with what has been achieved so far. We know for sure that we can go even further.
Max Fisher, while writing for the Washington Post blog, said that you guys aren't very funny. Do you have a response for him?
Max Fischer most likely based his "they're juvenile" comment solely on the E! News hacks where it was announced that Justin Bieber was gay. This was the first time the SEA hacked an entertainment outlet. We did in fact do the hack "for the lulz," especially since so many fans demanded it inside and outside Syria. The sharp eye would have picked up a story behind one of the tweets: the Angelina Jolie tweet. She has visited in December 2012 a Syrian refugees camp in Jordan and was video taped teary eyed, voicing her sympathies to the refugees. We know the likes of Jolie, who under the "humanitarian" cover only serve American imperialism. Furthermore, the timing of the hack with the visit by Bieber to a Gulf state conspiring against our nation shouldn't be ignored.
As for us being "unfunny," one only has to observe the replies and the reactions to the hacked tweets to see that the majority of the "Twittersphere" that has interacted with or encountered the SEA find us witty and informative. We can't please everybody and Fischer's comment is just another opinion. What can we say? Haters gonna hate.
Why have you been willing to talk to us at VICE? Are we not just as likely targets for a hack too?
We generally target the most malicious media, especially those who refuse to cover both sides of the war. We won't say we approve of anyone's coverage, but the fact that you're willing to hear a second point of view means that VICE won't be on our radars. There are many media sites we could have easily targeted, but didn't out of at least gratitude for a slim amount of journalistic integrity. On the other hand, outright lying media such as the Guardian is going to be a target for the rest of the war. They even managed to claim we are paid for our hacks (to delegitimize our cause), imagined an SEA base in Dubai connecting them via Syria (an entire base, I kid you not!) while at the same time claiming that they interviewed a "defector" who classified our sectarian affiliation. Needless to say, this was the Guardian's knee-jerk response to our infiltration of their media. Our response to Luke Harding and others is, U MAD BRO?
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