Who’s behind the recent online attacks against U.S. banks? A Muslim hacktivist group calling itself the Cyber fighters of Izz ad-din Al qassam continues to take credit for the campaign of website disruptions. In recent weeks, its distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, launched under the banner of “Operation Ababil,” have disrupted the websites of some of Wall Street’s biggest financial institutions, including Bank of America, BB&T, JPMorgan Chase, Capital One, HSBC, New York Stock Exchange, Regions Financial, SunTrust, U.S. Bank, and Wells Fargo.
The hacktivist group’s name refers to “Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, a Muslim holy man who fought against European forces and Jewish settlers in the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s,” according to The New York Times. In a similar vein, the website disruptions have been portrayed by some backers as a spontaneous, grassroots-driven online protest. But the actual identity of the attackers, as well as their motives or backing, remain the subject of much debate. Notably, U.S. officials–speaking anonymously in media interviews–have alleged that the group, despite what its own anonymous public pronouncements might claim, is nothing more than a front for an operation that’s being run by the Iranian government.
In a series of Pastebin posts, the hacktivists have typically previewed which banks they’ll be disrupting, as well as the dates and times of planned attacks. At the same time, they’ve broadly denied U.S. government officials’ assertions, including allegations that the group has been involved in recent attacks that employed malware to obtain credentials for U.S. bank websites, allowing attackers to wire money from U.S. to overseas bank accounts, stealing up to $900,000 in one go.
So, what do the attackers want? According to their Pastebin pronouncements, their goal is relatively simple: they want to see the Innocence of Muslims film that mocks the founder of Islam removed from the Internet. A 14-minute clip of the film first surfaced on YouTube in July 2012, parts of which were broadcast on Egyptian television on Sept. 9, 2012.
The film has been attributed to Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (a.k.a. Mark Basseley Youssef), 55, who was recently arrested in the United States on parole violations, which could see him returned to jail for two years. Nakoula, an Egyptian-born U.S. resident, was on parole after serving prison time for his 2010 conviction on bank fraud charges, and his alleged parole violations include using aliases, using a computer without supervision, and lying to his probation officer. Nakoula, however, has denied all charges against him. He’s due back in court next month.
In the meantime, the attacks on banking websites show no signs of stopping.
Image credit: Photograph of Wall Street courtesy of Flickr user Michael Daddino.
The attackers have been targeting some of the country’s largest financial institutions. On Oct. 16, in the fifth week of the banking attacks, CapitalOne even saw its online banking and corporate sites get disrupted by attackers for a second time, in what was the first repeat attack. Meanwhile, on Oct. 18, HSBC confirmed that not just its U.S. websites but also some global websites had been disrupted by attackers.
“HSBC servers came under a denial of service attack which affected a number of HSBC websites around the world,” according to an Oct. 18 statement issued by the bank on the day it was attacked. “This denial of service attack did not affect any customer data, but did prevent customers using HSBC online services, including internet banking.” By later that day, however, the bank said it had restored service.
While the outages are annoying for customers, they could also spell lost revenue for the businesses involved. Accordingly, might these bank website attacks portend a future in which hacktivists regularly seek to cause economic damage to U.S. businesses as a form of protest, or even low-grade cyber warfare? Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, in a recent speech delivered to the Business Executives for National Security, suggested that possibility, as he warned how “a destructive cyber terrorist attack could paralyze the nation.” Speaking of the attacks on bank websites, he said: “While this kind of tactic isn’t new, the scale and speed was unprecedented.”
Many cybersecurity watchers saw Panetta’s speech as a thinly veiled threat to Iran. In recent weeks, U.S. government officials–again, speaking anonymously in media interviews, and referencing what they said were classified intelligence reports–have said that the signature of the banking attacks has been traced to a group of fewer than 100 information security specialists, all based at Iranian universities and technology companies, who are backed by the Iranian government.
In light of those allegations, the Cyber fighters of Izz ad-din Al qassam have sought to shift the question of Iranian government backing back to the Innocence of Muslims film. “With a little searching, we still found the anti-Islamic offensive film on the Internet. Thus the chain of cyber attacks on U.S. banks will continue this week,” they wrote in a Pastebin post previewing the fifth week of attacks.