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The Syrian Electronic Army

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A few days ago, the Justice Department revealed the names of three members of the hacker group known as The Syrian Electronic Army, placing two of them on the FBI’s “Cyber’s Most Wanted” list with a $100,000 bounty for information leading to an arrest. The two names added to the list are Ahmad Umar Agha, aka “The Pro” and Firas Dardar, aka “The Shadow”.

The Syrian Electronic Army has taken over the websites of organizations such as the US Marines, Harvard University, and Human Rights Watch. They’ve also hacked the websites and Twitter accounts of news organizations including CNN, BBC, and The Washington Post.

In April 2013, The Syrian Electronic Army took control of the Twitter account of the Associated Press and sent out a tweet claiming President Barack Obama had been injured in an explosion. The news sent the stock market into a nose dive only to have it recover after the White House released a statement saying that there in fact had been no explosion and the President was safe.

Though the criminal complaint was filed in 2014, the charges were unsealed on Tuesday. As supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, some of the Syrian Electronic Army’s attacks seem to be in retaliation for the US’s support of rebels fighting his regime. For example, they attempted to hack into the White House Twitter account by posing as employees looking for login credentials. They also hacked into the US Marines website and redirected people to a page that suggested American soldiers should refuse to follow orders.

The Syrian Electronic Army has not only committed crimes for political reasons, they’ve done so for their own personal profit as well. They’ve allegedly hacked into the systems of private companies across the US, Europe, and Asia in order to extort money. The FBI has identified at least 14 different instances where Agha and Dardar gained access to a company’s systems, then threatened to delete or sell their data if they did not pay a ransom.

Admittedly, the FBI has little recourse other than offering a reward for their capture, though the US has taken further steps in the past against hackers it deemed a threat to national security. In August, Junaid Hussain, a British national working with ISIS, was killed in a targeted drone strike after allegedly hacking US military systems and beefing up the terrorist organization’s online defenses.

These recent charges further underscore the grey area between criminal hacking and hacking that represents a national security threat. The fact that so much damage can be done with relative ease from a laptop a world away is a perfect example of the complexity of 21st century warfare.