* Young Mauritanian plays role in coordinating hacker groups
* Jihadists battle governments from south Algeria to Nigeria
* Hacking group aims to defend Muslims by peaceful means
By Elise Knutsen
DAKAR, June 28 In Nouakchott, a dusty city
wedged between the Atlantic ocean and western dunes of the
Sahara, a young hip-hop fan coordinates a diverse group of
hackers targeting websites worldwide in the name of Islam.
Logging on to his computer, he greets his Facebook followers
with a "good morning all" in English before posting links to 746
websites they have hacked in the last 48 hours along with his
digital calling card: a half-skull, half-cyborg Guy Fawkes mask.
He calls himself Mauritania Attacker, after the remote
Islamic republic in west Africa from which he leads a youthful
group scattered across the Maghreb, southeast Asia and the West.
As jihadists battle regional governments from the deserts of
southern Algeria to the scrubland of north Nigeria, Mauritania
Attacker says the hacking collective which he founded,
AnonGhost, is fighting for Islam using peaceful means.
"We're not extremists," he said, via a Facebook account
which a cyber security expert identified as his. "AnonGhost is a
team that hacks for a cause. We defend the dignity of Muslims."
During a series of conversations via Facebook, the
23-year-old spoke of his love of house music and hip hop, and
the aims of his collective, whose targets have included U.S. and
British small businesses and the oil industry.
He represents a new generation of Western-style Islamists
who promote religious conservatism and traditional values, and
oppose those they see as backing Zionism and Western hegemony.
In April, AnonGhost launched a cyber attack dubbed OpIsrael
that disrupted access to several Israeli government websites,
attracting the attention of security experts worldwide.
"AnonGhost is considered one of the most active groups of
hacktivists of the first quarter of 2013," said Pierluigi
Paganini, security analyst and editor of Cyber Defense magazine.
An online archive of hacked Web sites, Hack DB, lists more
than 10,400 domains AnonGhost defaced in the past seven months.
Mauritania, a poor desert nation straddling the Arab Maghreb
and black sub-Saharan Africa, is an unlikely hacker base. It has
3.5 million inhabitants spread across an area the size of France
and Germany, and only 3 percent of them have Internet access.
Much of the population lives in the capital Nouakchott,
which has boomed from a town of less than 10,000 people 40 years
ago to a sprawling, ramshackle city of a million inhabitants. In
its suburbs, tin and cinderblock shanties battle the Sahara's
encroaching dunes and desert nomads stop to water their camels.
In the past six months experts have noted an increase in
hacking activity from Mauritania and neighbouring countries. In
part, that reflects Mauritania Attacker's role in connecting
pockets of hackers, said Carl Herberger, vice president of
security solutions at Radware.
"This one figure, Mauritania Attacker, is kind a figure who
brings many of these groups together," Herberger told Reuters.
MODERN TECHNOLOGY, ANCIENT MISSION
Mauritania Attacker says his activities are split between
cyber cafes and his home, punctuated by the five daily Muslim
Well-educated, he speaks French and Arabic among other
languages and updates his social media accounts regularly with
details of the latest defacements and email hacks. He would not
say how he made a living.
His cyber threats are often accented with smiley faces and
programmer slang, and he posts links to dancefloor hits and
amusing Youtube videos. But his message is a centuries-old
Islamist call for return to religious purity.
"Today Islam is divisive and corrupt," he said in an online
exchange. "We have abandoned the Koran."
Mauritanian Attacker aims to promote "correct Islam" by
striking at servers hosted by countries they see as hostile to
sharia law. "There is no Islam without sharia," he said.
Mauritania is renowned for its strict Islamic law. The sale
of alcohol is forbidden and it is one of only a handful of
states where homosexuality and atheism are punished by death.
The quality of Mauritania's religious scholars and koranic
schools, or madrassas, attract students from around the world.
Mauritanians have risen to prominent positions in regional
jihadist groups, including al Qaeda's north African branch AQIM.
As hackers from the region organise into groups, the Maghreb
is emerging as a haven for hacktivism as it lacks the laws and
means to prosecute cyber criminals, Herberger said.
"There's a great degree of anonymity and there's a great
degree of implied impunity," he said.
Security sources in Nouakchott said they were not aware of
the activities of Mauritania Attacker.
He says he supports Islamists in Mauritania but opposes his
government's support for the West, which sees the country as one
of its main allies in its fight against al Qaeda in the region.
With tech-savy young Muslims in the Maghreb chafing under
repressive regimes, analysts anticipate a rise in hacktivism.
Hacking is a way for young people to express religious and
political views without being censored, says Aaron Zelin, fellow
at the Washington Institute.
"These societies are relatively closed in terms of people's
ability to openly discuss topics that are taboo," he said.
For disillusioned youth in countries like Mauritania, where
General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz seized power in a 2008 coup
before winning elections the next year, hacking has become "a
way of expressing their distaste with status quo," Zelin said.
JURY OUT ON GROUP'S REACH
AnonGhost's global reach is its greatest weapon, but it has
yet to stage a major attack on a Western economic target.
Most of AnonGhost's campaigns have simply defaced Web sites,
ranging from kosher dieting sites to American weapon aficionado
blogs, with messages about Islam and anti-Zionism.
It has attacked servers, often hosting small business
websites, located in the United States, Brazil, France, Israel
and Germany among others.
Mauritania Attacker and the AnonGhost crew say these
countries have "betrayed Muslims" by supporting Israel and by
participating in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We are the new generation of Muslims and we are not
stupid," read a message posted on the Web site of a party supply
business in Italy. "We represent Islam. We fight together. We
stand together. We die together."
The team has also leaked email credentials, some belonging
to government workers from the United States and elsewhere.
As part of a June 20 operation against the oil industry,
carried out alongside the international hacking network
Anonymous, Mauritania Attacker released what he said were the
email addresses and passwords for employees of Total.
A spokesperson for the French oil major did not immediately
respond to requests for comment.
One security expert said AnonGhost's attacks exploited
"well-known vulnerabilities in configurations of servers" in
target countries rather than going after high-profile companies.
Carl Herberger, vice president of security solutions at
Radware, remains unconvinced AnonGhost has the
technical skills to wage full-scale cyber terrorism by harming
operational capabilities of companies or government agencies.
"The jury is still out," he said, but cautioned against
underestimating the emerging group. "You're never quite sure
what they're going to do on the offensive, so they have to be
right only once and you have to be right always."