Cyber-warfare comes to Mauritania

Online media have been slow to take off in Mauritania, but already several websites critical to the regime are coming under attack from hackers, which they say are linked to the military junta.

NOUAKCHOTT, November 12, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The Sahara Media news agency, considered the first news site in Mauritania, was the latest victim in a series of deliberate attacks on the country's websites. 

After two previous failed attempts, the latest attacks were enough to disrupt the website for two days at least, which forced the management to change the site's domain name. In a statement to its readers, Sahara Media described the attack as "very dangerous and possibly be the start of an open war on free media in the country."

The hacking of the website came two days after a similar attack on the al-Anba' al-Ikhbari website, which was launched at the beginning of the latest political crisis in Mauritania. On August 6, 2008, Mauritania's democratically elected president, Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, was ousted in a military coup. The country has been ruled by a military junta ever since.

Sahara Media has accused "national and foreign parties" of aiming to muzzle the site.

Al-Anba', for its part, was far more specific in assigning blame. It said "some parties in the military regime in Nouakchott" are responsible for the sabotage.

Al-Anba's editor in chief, Sheikh Ould Ahmad Amin, who is currently living in Canada, said in a statement to MENASSAT that the hacking came from parties close to the technical department of the site, without giving any additional information.

"Our website was subject to an internal sabotage operation. We can't uncover all the facts by giving name because of the danger still hanging over our website."
According to Ahmad Amin, the attack is connected to the website's stated intent to publish articles about various scandals involving politicians and high ranking personalities in the country. 

"We are fully aware that the current military regime that ousted the first elected government in Mauritania, is directly or indirectly linked to what happened," Ahmad Amin said.

The website says it is still planning to publish said stories.

Many journalists in Mauritania fear that these attacks are part of a campaign targeting press freedom in the country.

The attacks are reminiscent of earlier hacking incidents that targeted a number of websites opposed to the rule of Ould al-Taya', Mauritania's dictator from 1984-2005. However, these sites later developed protective systems to face the hackers.

MENASSAT met with some IT technicians who said that part of the problem is that most Mauritanian websites have very weak security systems.

But despite all these attacks, people are still sticking their necks out, as proved by the recent launch of For Mauritania, a trilingual website proposing a media opposition platform to the military coup.