Hackers targeted Syrian media during Damascus Summit

Apart from being boycotted by half the Arab world's leaders, last weekend's Damascus Summit was also subject to an organized computer attack targeting the country's official websites.

DAMASCUS, April 1, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Journalists covering the Arab summit from the Damascus media center on Saturday morning were astonished to find access to many official Syrian websites blocked. Access was denied to the official Syrian news agency, SANA, newspapers like al-Thawra and Tishrine and news websites such as Syria News, Sham Press and Zaman al-Wasel.

Rumors quickly spread among journalists that Syria was under a computer attack, probably originating in France, Turkey or Lebanon. Officials at the Ministry of Communications preferred not to divulge the source of the hacking, instead releasing an official statement saying, "The attack on the websites hosted by foreign companies came from outside the Syrian territories with no specific source."

The Ministry later said that the Telecommunications Institution and the Syrian Scientific Association were collaborating with the host companies to solve the problem and put the websites back online. Backup copies of the websites were being transported to the Syrian Scientific Association in anticipation of another attack.

Attacks of this kind are known as "dos attacks," which sent imaginary requests and visits to the sites and servers so as to prevent the sites from serving the real users' requests properly. The hackers used high-speed connections to attack the IPs of the websites in question.

The Syrian officials at the media center were visibly confused by what was happening. Despite all the efforts to switch the sites to other IPs, the breakdown lasted for more than seven hours, and the effects were still apparent on Tuesday, when SANA's website stopped working more than once.

Some journalistic sources held Syrian opposition figures responsible for the attack, perhaps with the collaboration of the Lebanese (anti-Syrian) majority. However, this information was not confirmed.

Al-Arabiya TV initially published a report about the attack on its website, alarabiya.net, before removing it for reasons unknown. The channel stated that "two major Syrian websites were subject to hacker attacks coinciding with the speech of President Bashar al-Assad during the opening of the Arab Summit in Damascus on March 29. Well-informed sources requesting anonymity confirmed to al-Arabiya that SANA and Sham Press websites were subject to an electronic attack perpetrated by the Syrian opposition and some Lebanese groups, refusing to give names and to specify the exact source of the attack."

The Syrian journalists judged that this attack was not innocent, especially since it came at a time when the Syrian regime is under fierce political attack from abroad.

According to Adnan al-Khatib, a journalist from SANA, "The aim of this attack is to keep the facts of the Summit from being transmitted to the international public opinion." In his opinion, the attack could only have come from sources opposing the summit in Damascus.

The Damascus summit was boycotted by half the Arab League's leaders, with most pro-Western Arab countries, including Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, sending only low-level delegations to Syria. The boycott was in response to a call by the U.S. to stay away from Damascus because of Syria's perceived meddling in the political crisis crippling Lebanon. The Lebanese government boycotted the summit entirely.

Another Syrian journalist, Nidal Naissa, said the attack is "an important lesson to the Ministry of Information and the concerned officials, so they would learn the power of the word. It is the strongest weapon, serving Syria more than any number of officials and politicians, even if the [official] Syrian websites don't publish the works of many Syrian writers, and has some reservations against many names, including my own."

Naissa also pointed out that the attack on the Syrian websites comes on the back of a political boycott of the Damascus summit, and should be seen as a preemptive attack by the boycotting countries.

Since the websites under attack were hosted by servers outside Syria, some people have suggested Syrian websites would do better to find servers inside Syria itself to guard against such attacks in the future.

But Morhef Mino, managing editor of the news website Zaman al-Wasel, itself a victim of the attack, begged to differ.

"I strongly encourage hosting newspapers and websites outside Syria because we lack freedom of expression and the press in Syria. It is easy to have a website banned just by contacting the Syrian intelligence services. The Syrian Scientific Association is known to enter sites it hosts to erase [critical] articles. So I'm against hosting inside Syria. At the same time, it is not necessary for us to work with U.S. servers; there are other possibilities in Europe, India or China," Mino said.

He added that it is not true that the source of the attack was unknown, as the Ministry has claimed, because it is very easy for anyone in the Ministry to simply follow the trail of IP addresses.

Nevertheless, he agreed that the timing of the attack was not innocent. "This is an unprecedented incident and a black point in the history of the Syrian media."

The Damascus Summit ended with a call for an end to the political crisis in Lebanon. But there were no specific proposals to resolve the impasse over the election of a new president.