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A Sunni-Shiite battle of the website hackers

While some Middle East experts say tit-for-tat cyberattacks on Islamic websites amounts to a virtual sectarian battle, others suspect third-party agitators could be the culprits.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 2008

Cyber truce? During the recent Eid-al-Fitr holiday, religiously motivated computer hackers, apparently Shiite Muslims, offered a truce in the sectarian hacker war. The image above, on an Islamic website, was seen as an olive branch.

http://www.saifoali.org

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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Sunni-Shiite tensions have been on vivid display in cyberspace as hundreds of religiously oriented websites on both sides have fallen prey to retaliatory hacking raids.

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The cyberassaults temporarily defaced websites of prominent Muslim clerics, including those of Iraqi Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the late Sunni mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz Abdullah bin Baz.

More recently, Shiite hackers attacked the website of Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned channel based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. For hours, site visitors were redirected to a page where, beneath an image of a burning Israeli flag, large red letters in English and Arabic declared: "Serious Warning. If attacks on Shia WebSites Continue, none of your WebSites Will be SAFE."

Middle East experts say that this online psychological battle should be seen in the context of Sunni dismay over what they see as Iran's strategic gains in Arab nations, especially Iraq.

Although it's hard to show any direct connection in the cloaked world of Web sabotage, the interreligious hacking really took off after prominent Sunni cleric Yousef al-Qaradawi called Shiites "heretics" and accused them of trying to "invade" Sunni communities in a Sept. 9 interview.

His remarks were "a green light" for Sunnis to go on the offensive against Shiite sites, says Ali Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Gulf Institute, a Saudi opposition think tank.

A couple of weeks later, an Iranian news agency claimed that 300 Shiite websites had been defaced by Wahhabis, as the austere Sunni Muslims in Saudi Arabia are known, including that of Mr. Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric.

Then came attacks on scores of Sunni websites. Shiite hackers often left the same calling card: a face painted with the colors of the Iranian flag, and a map of the Arabian Gulf labeled "The Persian Gulf."

Hacking Al Qaeda

Meanwhile, another noteworthy cyber-event occurred in early September, when several online forums affiliated with Al Qaeda were knocked out of commission. So far, they have not been revived.

"It's unprecedented, because before they've been able to come back [within] a few days," says William McCants, a Washington area-based analyst of militant Islam and founder of jihadica.com, which monitors Al Qaeda Web activity.

Mr. McCants says that in June, he noticed that a prominent Al Qaeda forum had disappeared. It came back in a few days but then shortly before Sept. 11, it and several other forums went down. "It seemed like June was a test run."

As for who is responsible, it is "a bit of a mystery," says Evan Kohlmann, who also monitors Al Qaeda online at the NEFA Foundation in Charleston, S.C.

Private groups involved in countering online terrorist activity have denied responsibility and US intelligence agencies declined to comment, Kohlmann says in an e-mail, adding, "I would say this much: It certainly does not appear to be a coincidence that the forums encountered these technical problems on September 10."

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