In late July and early August 2013, a Gaza-based hacker group named “Qods Freedom” launched a cyber-operation against Israeli websites. The attack comprised distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, website defacements and attempted bank account breaches.
The DDoS-affected sites were Israel Railways, El Al (Israel’s national airline) and a leading daily newspaper. The attacks were all effective, topping at about 3.2 Gb/sec, rendering the sites inaccessible for many hours.
The group defaced over 600 sites, most of them related to two hosting service providers (likely to have been compromised). The defacement messages suggest that the motivation for the attack was to commemorate “Quds Day” – the last Friday of Ramadan.The group did not attempt to conceal its actions. Quite the contrary – it has an official Facebook page and Imageshack account where it posted images purportedly depicting the breach of Israeli bank accounts.
The political affiliation of the groups seems very clear – hardcore Palestinian, anti-Israeli. This was also evident from pictures they posted on the defaced sites that included images of the Dome of the Rock, the Palestinian flag, footage of protesters skirmishing with IDF soldiers and a portrait of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and a quote from his famous “Spider Web” speech, which he delivered in southern Lebanon in 2000 (where he predicted that Israel would break apart like spider webs in the slightest wind).
After the attack subsided, SenseCy cyber intelligence analysts decided to take a closer look at the actions of this so-called Palestinian group. Gilad Zahavi, Director of Cyber Intelligence, recounted: “Something just didn’t add up. We were seeing many indications that this group was not what it portrayed itself to be, so we decided to dig deeper.”Using virtual entities (some of which have been in operation for some time, and are used to collect information on the vibrant hacking scene in Gaza), they started sniffing around on Palestinian forums and social media groups, but no-one seemed to know much about this group. With little else to do, the team looked again at the “signature” the group left after defacing one website. And there it was – a very uncharacteristic typo in the transcript of Nasrallah’s famous speech, one that no native Arab speaker would make. This raised suspicions that this group might not be Arab at all. A closer look at the font used to type the message confirmed that it originated from a Farsi-language keyboard.
Focusing on the Iranian connection, the team uncovered several other indications of the true origins of the group. For starters, “Quds Day” is mostly celebrated by the Iranian government and Hezbollah, not by Palestinian Sunnis. Secondly, the only references to these attacks (anywhere in the Muslim world) have come from the Iranian media. Two additional Iranian groups, “Iranian Data Coders” and “Persian Flag Guards” use the same defacement signature, indicating at least some affiliation to Iranian cyber groups. The last telltale sign was that Iranian hacker groups often choose to masquerade as Arab hackers, choosing Arabic instead of Farsi names. A notable example is the “Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters”, perceived to be linked to the Palestinian Hamas organization, but in fact operated by the Iranian regime.
So there you have it – an Iranian group with high technical capabilities, masquerading as a Palestinian group and attacking Israeli sites. This scheme was uncovered not by fancy computer forensics, but by good old-fashioned intelligence work, built on linguistic and cultural expertise, combined with a deep understanding of the cyber domain and intimate knowledge of the Middle East hacking scene.