Bashar Assad_June2011
A man holds a roll of pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad during a rally in support of him at al-Umawiin square in Damascus on June 21, 2011. Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri

The Syrian Electronic Army, a group of hackers that supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, struck again on Wednesday afternoon. The group – or someone purporting to be the SEA -- gained access to International Business Times’ internal publishing systems, deleting an article and threatening to further disrupt the site.

The Syrian Electronic Army has engaged in several large-scale cyber-attacks since 2011, when it claims to have started "when the Arab and Western media started their bias in favor of terrorist groups that have killed civilians, the Syrian Arab Army and have destroyed private and public property." The group focuses on public targets like media companies and government social media accounts, spreading pro-Assad propaganda.

Some cyber-security companies say the group is supported by Assad, either tacitly or directly, while conflicting reports also claim it operates out of Dubai, Turkey or Iran, financed by wealthy Assad supporters. It temporarily compromised a Twitter account belonging to President Barack Obama in January.

The SEA claims it counters “fabricated news” critical of Assad in the Western media, and consists of "group of enthusiastic Syrian youths who could not stay passive towards the massive distortion of facts about the recent uprising in Syria.”

The group also recently launched a large-scale attack against a number of media companies running on the Gigya content delivery network. Late in November, the websites of companies including Microsoft, Dell, Ferrari and humanitarian organization Unicef were targeted, as well as media companies like Forbes, the Chicago Tribune, the Telegraph, Evening Standard and Independent of London, Italy's La Repubblica, and CNBC.

The growing threat of cyber-attacks

The attack on IBT is the latest in an increasing number of high-profile global cyber-security threats. The FBI has warned that Iranian hackers could physically harm people in the U.S. and abroad, after it was discovered that they had infiltrated a number of critical infrastructure networks.

Sony Pictures Entertainment announced Wednesday that it would cancel the theatrical release of “The Interview” after a similar group of hackers supportive of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un infiltrated its network. The group, which called itself the Guardians of Peace, or GOP, collected 1000 terabytes of dataincluding unreleased films, emails and Social Security numbers.

Governments are scrambling to increase their defenses against such attacks. The U.S. Senate last week passed a Cyber Security Act meant to ramp up the electronic defenses of critical infrastructure. Sony reportedly launched counter-attacks of its own against people downloading its stolen data.

A history of high-profile targets

In the past, the SEA has hacked the websites of media companies like the New York Times and Huffington Post, Washington Post, as well as the social media accounts of the Associated Press, Reuters, NPR, BBC,CBS and the Global Post. It has taken over blogs and Twitter accounts belonging to the Financial Times as well, and Twitter accounts of military organizations like the Israel Defense Forces and U.S. Marines, the latter move landing them on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

The SEA also briefly took over blogs and Twitter accounts belonging to Microsoft Corp., as well as the company’s popular messaging app Skype, actions it said were due to the company’s involvement with NSA spying programs