On Syria’s digital battlefield, hackers loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are defeating the rebels' cyber militias.
Just as the Syrian opposition leans on the West to supply weapons and other military aid, rebel hackers depend on the international community to help bolster their tactics.
But even as the conflict reaches new stages of violence – more than 70,000 people have been killed so far – support among international hacker communities is waning.
Last year, rebels enjoyed massive support from international hacker collectives like Anonymous, which launched several attacks on the Assad government. Early in 2012, Anonymous said it accessed several regime email accounts, including an account belonging to the Syrian president. Anonymous renewed their pledge to support Syrian hackers last November as the Assad regime threatened to shut down internet access across the country.
But after several arrests and convictions, Anonymous’ OpSyria seems to have ground to a halt. Without wider international support, Assad's Syrian Electronic Army’s dominion in the Syrian internet war is all but unchallenged.
In recent weeks, the Syrian Electronic Army has launched a number of successful campaigns, seizing control of social media accounts belonging to a broad range of news organizations and nonprofit foundations. The Syrian Electronic Army says western news organizations are outlets for Syrian rebel propaganda.
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On Thursday, the Syrian Electronic Army continued their string of high profile hacks when they took control of several BBC Twitter feeds, including @BBCWeather, @BBCArabicOnline and @BBCRadioUlster.
“The Syrian Electronic Army Hacked Today BBC Network accounts on Twitter and that came in response to what BBC practiced of lies and fabrication of news and in addition to the bias to the bloody opposition...,” read a statement from the Syrian Electronic Army, which claimed responsibility for the security breach.
Last week, the Syrian Electronic Army also gained access to an administrator account for Human Right Watch, calling the organization’s report that Assad is using cluster munitions “false."
This year alone, the Syrian Electronic Army hacked social media platforms used by the Qatar Foundation, France 24, Deutsche Welle, AFP and Sky News.
The Syrian rebels are partly hamstrung by a lack of electricity and technology. Their numbers, too, have been depleted as Assad forces make arrests, aided by the work of the Syrian Electronic Army, which tracks dissent on Facebook.
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To protect their ranks, rebel hackers are breaking into their allies’ Facebook accounts to remove anti-regime media.
"We replaced the flag of the revolution with pornography," rebel hacker Ahmed Heider told NPR. "Like pictures, you know, to keep the investigator busy."
As the toll of the fighting ravages Syrian infrastructure, anti-regime hackers are struggling to stay active on the digital front in Syria’s civil war. Heider, a member of a rebel hacker collective known as Pirates of Aleppo, is now living in Turkey.
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"Not alone — no one can take an [Syrian Electronic] army alone," Heider told NPR.