Syrian hackers wanted by US

  • 23/03/2016
Ahmad Umar Agha and Firas Dardar (supplied)
Ahmad Umar Agha and Firas Dardar (supplied)

US authorities have charged three Syrian nationals who are current or former members of the Syrian Electronic Army with multiple conspiracies related to computer hacking, the US Justice Department said on Tuesday.

Ahmad Umar Agha, 22, and Firas Dardar, 27, were charged with a criminal conspiracy that included "a hoax regarding a terrorist attack" and "attempting to cause mutiny of the US armed forces", the department said in a statement.

Dardar and Peter Romar, 36, were separately charged with other conspiracies, including extortion and wire fraud, it said.

The FBI said on Tuesday it was adding Agha and Dardar to its Cyber Most Wanted list and offering a reward of US$100,000 for information leading to their arrest, the statement said.

Agha and Dardar, who are believed to reside in Syria, began their criminal activities in or around 2011 under the name of the Syrian Electronic Army in support of the Syrian government, the statement said. Romar is believed to live in Germany.

The alleged hackers are said to have used a common and relatively unsophisticated attack known as spear phishing, in which perpetrators send deceptive emails in an effort to trick recipients into clicking on malicious links and downloading malware onto their networks.

The campaign targeted computer systems belonging to a raft of media outlets, including CNN, NPR, the Associated Press and Reuters, in addition to Microsoft, Harvard University and Human Rights Watch, according to the Justice Department.

The alleged hackers are also charged with repeatedly trying to infiltrate White House systems, although their attempts were unsuccessful.

The most high-profile episode occurred in April 2013, when the accused hackers gained credentials to the Twitter account belonging to the Associated Press and tweeted a false news alert that two explosions had occurred at the White House and that President Barack Obama was injured.

The fabricated news briefly caused the US stock market to plummet before recovering minutes later.

Assistant Attorney General John Carlin said in a statement that the alleged hackers sought to harm economic and national security in the United States while simultaneously attempting financial gain.

The dual motives showed that "the line between ordinary criminal hackers and potential national security threats is increasingly blurry", he said.

In June 2015, the US Army said it temporarily took down its website after the Syrian Electronic Army hacked into the site and posted messages.