US Training Syrian Opposition In Cyber Warfare, Online Security

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Haifa Zaaiter reviews Western reports on the US training Syrian dissidents as “cyberwarriors.” Opposition fighters are being trained to document and circulate footage of confrontations and US-funded programs are providing software to the fighters to help them encrypt their communications and bypass government firewalls.

Along with the ongoing the arms race in Syria, there is a different kind of “war.” This other war might even be more dangerous, simply because it is more intelligent. It is electronic warfare, reinvented by the US under the term “logistics aid.” Fighters on the battlegrounds are transformed into highly trained “cyber warriors,” capable of wielding machine guns in one hand and cameras or computers in the other. The most impressive feature of this new US war strategy must be the electronic tactics that the US has adopted, especially those that were initially developed by drug dealers or Internet hackers. Such tactics were bitterly denounced by the US in past years.

Abu Ghassan, a US-trained cyber warrior, recounts to Time magazine how he "learned to fight Bashar Assad with an AK-47, a video camera and the Internet." Ghassan boasted that he had learned to upload footage of recorded battles on the Internet at the beginning of the training sessions, which were organized to support the Syrian opposition. He was sent to the US at the request of Syrian opposition leaders to receive advanced training. During these more complex sessions with the US State Department, Ghassan was trained on PC encryption mechanisms, government firewall workarounds and the safe use of mobile phones.

In its report, Time mentioned Washington’s attempt to contribute to the Syrian opposition through an “invisible line” — cyber training. The Obama administration has denied that the US attempted to arm the opposition against Assad. However, US officials revealed that the administration has been involved, since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, in supplying support and technological training for the Syrian opposition. This was done through small nonprofit groups such as “the Institute for War & Peace Reporting” and “Freedom House.”   

The Time piece also discussed the US technological support project that began four years ago. However, the target of that project was initially China. At that time, attorney Michael Horowitz visited the US Representative for Virginia, Frank Wolf (R), and suggested appropriating funds to support the Falun Gong movement, which Beijing regards as dangerous. Funds were allocated to distribute software and help Chinese dissidents develop their cyber skills to bypass the government’s firewall and communicate with the outside world. Wolf managed to allocate only a small amount (roughly $15 million) for the project, for fear that Sino-American relations would deteriorate. Since the 2010 Iranian protests and and the following the Arab Spring revolutions across the Arab world, Internet freedom has topped Washington’s priorities and discussions. Reflecting this, the US Congress increased the the project’s funding to $57 million for the next three years. The funds will be allocated to finance training sessions, identity-concealment tactics via encryption, and circumvention technology to evade government firewalls.

According to Time, all the preparations for “cyber intervention” take place in a small room located on the seventh floor of the Harry S Truman building, which is the headquarters of the US State Department in Washington. In that small room is a six-member team comprised of two women and four men. They are responsible for collecting donations to support the Internet freedom initiative and fund nonprofit organizations and software developers to assist the Syrian opposition. The team reviews hundreds of donation proposals and relevant expert opinions.

“You won’t find commercial providers for this stuff because there’s no money in it. It’s all given away for free,” confirms Ben Scott, a member of the team. According to Scott, few people are concerned with or capable of developing these technologies. In total, there are 10,000 bloggers, journalists and activists who have been trained in 10 languages to develop 50 programs. Indeed, the whole process is similar to the tactics of a drug dealer!

Drug-dealer tactics

It is worth noting that most of the US tactics that the Syrian fighters now use were initially developed to evade US authorities. Today, a US-backed think tank in the Middle East trains activists to defeat the Syrian regime with the same tactics that were made famous in the television series “The Wire.” To make more secure phone calls, the Syrian opposition is trained to use a cheap, disposable phone with a SIM card that is registered in the name of a dead person.

The opposition is also trained to use Tor software to limit the government’s control over the Internet. The software is also used by drug dealers and Internet hackers because it provides secure platforms for emails and other means of online communication, such as riseup.net. As defined by the website’s developers, riseup.net provides “online communication tools for people and groups working on liberatory social change. We are a project to create democratic alternatives and practice self-determination by controlling our own secure means of communications.” It is worth noting that this website has been targeted several times by the FBI.

A third tactic revealed by US is the “Internet in a suitcase” program. The program allows dissidents access to the Internet even when autocratic authorities restrict access or shut the service providers down completely. It provides a “magic button” that, with a single click, deletes all data and online contacts that are saved on smart phones. The program contains an application that displays a false screen when entering a wrong password. Another application conceals the identities of Syrian dissidents in streets by hiding their faces, thus showing only general protest footage.

Time also discussed the intensive training sessions that Abu Ghassan underwent in five days as part of “Communication Security” program. First, the program tackled one of the most important issues: the mobile phone. Like the other activists, the former engineer learned to remove cell-phone batteries when they were not in use, how to handle more than one cell phone and how to exchange phones with others in record time. Activists were also trained how to encrypt their online conversations and hide documents on their PCs.

Instructors warned the Syrian activists to not get involved in a “cyber war” with the Syrian regime. The regime had previously used “friendly messages” that actually contained viruses in order to hack the dissidents’ PCs. The instructors believe, however, that the biggest challenge is free access to the software, which is available to both parties. In fact, the Syrian regime had previously resorted to using online tracking technologies from thte US. Researcher Sascha Meinrath, who is in charge of the “Internet in a suitcase” project, warns that the project could possibly result in a complete fiasco.

The CIA supports the Syrian opposition

Regarding US intervention in the Syrian conflict, high-level US officials revealed to the Wall Street Journal that in addition to diplomats, the CIA was making regular contact with Syrian fighters to coordinate their military operations against the regime.

As part of the efforts exerted by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and other allies, several CIA personnel have been entrusted with developing logistics routes to supply technology, weapons and training to Syrian dissidents.

US officials have also contemplated developing an intelligence exchange with the Free Syrian Army to help its members escape the Syrian regime’s attacks that depend on Russian and Iranian intelligence. US attempts to improve intelligence coordination with the Free Syrian Army aim to better understand the fighters and to define their identity and allegiances, as there is fear that the Syrian opposition factions may include members of al-Qaeda.

According to Time, Syrian fighters announced this week that they were now able to block the government’s military communications. They also confirmed that secure communications with each other is helping them prevent further schisms. In the last few weeks, Syrian fighters have answered international calls to to focus on centralizing their leadership. In response, they established nine military councils at the district level.

The Independent reported that the Free Syrian Army received a massive arms shipment from KSA and Qatar through Turkey. The shipment included Kalashnikov rifles, BKC machine guns, rockets and anti-tank weapons.

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Found in: tor, syrian opposition, syrian, internet restrictions, internet in a suitcase program, internet, government firewall, government, cyber warriors, cyber war, bashar al-assad
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