They are militant hackers who have attacked sites in Egypt, Morocco, Spain, Israel... Their screen messages have been likened to messages on banners hoisted by demonstrators in protest or support of political, social or even religious ideologies. The group is very active in Morocco, from where they have often hacked into sensitive security systems.
Sitting behind their computer screens, they meticulously encode and decode IT security systems in search of the slightest miscalculation in order to launch an attack. Widely known as hackers in Morocco, they have gone haywire and are relentless in their efforts to penetrate into both local and foreign sites. Egypt, Kuwait and Israel have all fallen victim to their devices.
But these are not some casual credit card thieves. They fall into a new category of activists known as "hacktivists". And while the oil that keeps the wheels of this underground movement rolling is the Internet, it is their ideological beliefs that keep their lamps alight. "It is the oldest form of hacking. Many developing countries resort to this mode of protest," says Ali El Azzouzi, a Moroccan IT security expert. In recent years, Morocco, like many other countries, has seen a surge in hacking.
Although there is no typical profile, hackers are often portrayed as young, under 20 computer enthusiasts. "'Haktivists' can be grouped into two categories: 'white hat' and 'black hat'. In other words, good guys and bad guys. 'White hat' refers to those that break into networks without necessarily causing havoc, whilst 'black hats' usually refers to those who hack into systems with very destructive, and sometimes money-making, intentions" said a young 'geek' who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Haktivists are organized in groups and sometimes go by unsuspecting names like "Ghosts of Morocco" to more aggressive ones such as "Team Evil". For Damien, an IT journalist at Zataz, "this is a group of young guys who are fooling around." "Hacking is their hobby. Some try pushing political ideologies, but in most cases, they are only excuses to engage in hacking."
Nonetheless, militant hackers are busy doing what they do best. And their latest feats include a site belonging to a Spanish disco, Meca. Meca looks like a mosque and has a dome and a minaret. September 13, hackers replaced the homepage with a picture of the Haram al-Sharif (Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem), accompanied by a hacker's signature: a male face adorned with a red cap bearing a star. The hacker also left a message: "Do you want to discover one day that your church has become a place dedicated to livestock or garbage?"
Spain was not the only country to suffer that month. Egypt's Ministry of Communications saw its site falling prey to Moroccan hackers after the broadcast of a TV movie, Dishonor. According to the group, the movie insults the integrity of Moroccan women.
This type of online activism emerged in 2006 with "Team Evil". The group hacked over 750 Israeli sites in response to an offensive by the Jewish state in the Gaza Strip. The affected sites had warning messages posted on their screens, some of which read: "Site hacked by Team Evil Arab Hackers. As long as you kill Palestinians, we will kill your servers".
The Israeli response was quick. Some 250 Internet sites in the North African Kingdom were attacked. Contrary to Israel, the damage to Morocco was heavy. Attack from Israel's "TEAM Good" on the Moroccan ISP Omihost hit some important servers containing back-ups. War on the Web was officially launched and hacktivism was born.
But despite its somewhat political agenda, hacktivism "remains an illegal and destructive way to express one's anger. The intention is commendable, but the act is not," says Anas El Filali B., founder of the blog Big Brother.
But if hacktivism has become so big, it is due to the vulnerability of systems on the one hand, and the religious determination of hackers on the other hand. Only a few ministries have the necessary tool capable of deterring cyber attacks.
Hacktivists have the leeway to operate in Morocco. "It is a conquered land" says Ali El Azzouzi. "The sites are not secure and there is a legal vacuum in this area".
Indeed, the Moroccan Penal Code which frowns against cybercrime and intrusions into databases as well as the law on the protection of personal data are hardly ever applied. "Judges are not trained enough and do not know who they are dealing with," says the expert.