Israeli Computer Hackers Foiled, Exposed

by Michael Gillespie

Israeli cyber warfare professionals targeted human rights and anti-war activists across the USA in late July and August temporarily disrupting communications, harassing hundreds of computer users, and annoying thousands more.

The Israeli hackers targeted Stephen "Sami" Mashney, an Anaheim, California, attorney active in the effort to raise awareness of the plight of Palestinians.

"People have found an alternate way to communicate through the Internet," Mashney, a Palestinian-American, told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, "and this attack is backfiring on the hackers.  Many people are being educated."

Mashney, who co-manages a popular pro-Palestinian e-mail list hosted by Yahoo! logged onto his Internet accounts on July 31 to find hundreds of e-mail messages from angry Americans.  He quickly realized that hackers had appropriated or "spoofed" his e-mail addresses and identity and sent out a message titled "Down With the USA" in his name.  The message named and included contact information for 16 well-known human rights activists and falsely claimed the activists wished to be contacted by anyone desiring advice or assistance in fomenting and carrying out anti-American, anti-Christian, or anti-Jewish activities.  In an obvious attempt to damage Mashney's reputation, the hackers appended his name, law office telephone number, and website address to the spurious e-mail.

As Mashney was looking up the telephone number of the local FBI office to report the hackers' crime, his phone rang.  It was the FBI calling, from Washington, with questions about the forged e-mail message.  Mashney later met with FBI agents in California.

"I answered all their relevant questions," said Mashney, who notes that the hackers' attacks continued unabated for weeks and expanded to include other new and innovative methods of harassment that were used against many other activists associated with Free Palestine and other public and private e-mail lists.

Dr. Francis A. Boyle, professor of International Law at the University of Illinois College of Law, is a human rights activist who served on the board of Amnesty International USA.  A member of Free Palestine and other activist lists, Dr. Boyle was also targeted by Israeli hackers who sent counterfeit e-mails in his name.  Again, the hackers' intention was to sow confusion, provoke animosity, damage a reputation, and restrict ability to communicate.  When Boyle returned from a vacation in mid August, he found 55,000 e-mails waiting for him.  Like Mashney, Boyle spent days sorting through the messages, writing personal apologies to those offended by the bogus e-mails, and deleting thousands of bounced messages.  Unflappable, Boyle takes it all in stride.

"You can't keep the Irish down," wrote Boyle in an e-mail message to this reporter.

Israeli hackers also targeted Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, associate professor at the Yale University School of Medicine.  The hackers forwarded to some 1,500 members of the Yale community e-mails that Qumsiyeh had sent to a private list of activists.  Many of his university colleagues were annoyed, but Qumsiyeh, too, feels that the hackers are doing the Zionist cause more harm than good.  Qumsiyeh said the hackers' efforts have generated new networking opportunities among activists and groups who did not know of each other's existence before the hackers targeted them.

Monica Terazi is director of the New York office of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).  Terazi's e-mail privileges were yanked by Yahoo! for a time after hackers "spoofed" her e-mail address and identity to send a message to some 80 Yahoo! groups.  Terazi, like Mashney, spoke with the FBI about the new Israeli cyber warfare tactics, which have piqued the interest of Internet communications professionals.  For a story published August 23, Terazi wrote to Wired News reporter Noah Shachtman, "While these e-mails are a nuisance, offensive and intimidating, the FBI didn't find anything illegal: There haven't been threats that rise to the level of a hate crime, no money has been stolen, public safety has not been endangered and, as far as we can tell, our computers have not been hacked or 'technically intruded into' as one agent put it."  The offensive messages are all protected by the First Amendment, said Terazi.

By mid August, the Israeli hackers had begun to target activists in Iowa, where it seems the Israeli hackers have "technically intruded" into computers.  It is also likely their helpers here have forwarded addresses from private lists to Israel.  Iowa activists report that people and organizations on their private e-mail lists: family members, friends, acquaintances, media contacts, government officials, interfaith relations organizations, activists, and activist organizations suddenly found themselves receiving tens, hundreds, or thousands of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian "spam" e-mails per day.  Many on private e-mail lists reported receiving anti-Arafat cartoons and racist diatribes, along with e-mail that aggressively connected to a web site that took control of their computers, turned the screen white, and made it necessary to shut down and re-start the computer.  Some also reported that their e-mail addresses had been "spoofed" and their on-line identities appropriated for the distribution of racist messages.

Darrell Yeaney, a Presbyterian campus minister who retired after serving at the University of Iowa, is active in Friends of Sabeel, an ecumenical Christian organization that supports the ministry of Sabeel, the center for Palestinian Ecumenical Liberation Theology.  He and his wife, Sue, now serve as co-moderators for the Middle East Peacemaking Group in Iowa.  The Yeaneys report that the hackers appropriated their address and sent out spurious e-mail in their names.

Ames-based activist, author, and editor Betsy Mayfield, whose work has appeared in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, was busy with plans for a mid-September Des Moines film festival, "Boundaries: The Holy Land," when the hackers turned their attentions to her computer.

Several Ames women whose only association with the crisis in the Holy Land is their commitment to the Ames Interfaith Council (AIC) reported being shocked by the sudden appearance of pornographic e-mail and racist diatribes on their computer screens.

The hackers targeted many Iowans for harassment, and hundreds of others suffered varying degrees of inconvenience because they were somehow connected to the cause of peace and justice in the Middle East.  Similar scenarios played out in other states across the USA.

The scale of the Israeli cyber warfare campaign, the number of targets, and the variety of techniques used, coupled with specifically targeted  intrusions calculated to provide additional target addresses for the application of the hackers' various forms of harassment, suggest a sophisticated, coordinated, government-sponsored program designed to impact directly upon the communications abilities of the human rights and pro-Palestinian anti-war activism communities in the USA.

When the Israeli hackers "spoofed" the AIC's e-mail address, they invited a response they did not expect.  Because the AIC list was hosted by Iowa State University (ISU), because the world's first electronic digital computer was invented at ISU in a Physics Department laboratory in the early 1940s, and because he has represented the ISU Muslim Student's Association on the AIC cabinet, ISU Physics Department computer administrator Dr. Bassam Shehadeh decided to track the hackers down.

"The hackers access the internet via an ISP called on the West Bank," said Shehadeh.

When did not respond to his repeated e-mail enquiries, Shehadeh called the company, informed their representative that Palnet facilities were being used to interfere with communications at a state institution in the USA, and demanded an explanation.  He provided information that enabled Palnet technicians to identify the phone number of the customer harassing Iowans.

"Everyone here is a victim but the hackers," said Shehadeh.  "The hackers use stolen identification to get access to Palnet."

Shehadeh said the contact line the hackers used for at least one message to the AIC list address was an Israeli number in West Jerusalem or one of the surrounding settlements.  A Palnet representative also told Shehadeh the hackers have used several lines and methods to access Palnet's facilities.

"Afterwards, the hackers compromise another service system here in the USA by passing the e-mail message with Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), using HELO verb.  The hackers don't have a valid principal host but overcome that by using a bracketed Internet Protocol number (IP address) at a location anywhere on the web.  Web hosting servers tricked into transferring these e-mails include Digital Cube, Inc., Verizon DSL Network, and Iowa Online Web Access located in Washington, Iowa," said Shehadeh

Shehadeh and other computer professionals working in the USA report that ISPs and companies with IP addresses are typically very cooperative when notified that their equipment is being misused.  Most act promptly to end the hackers' access.

Given widespread and systematic destruction of electronic communications facilities by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in the West Bank in recent months, the continued existence of Palnet facilities suggests that the Israeli government had reason to permit Palnet's continued operation and raises questions about the ability of Palnet's owners to refuse service to Israeli hackers or otherwise interfere with their activities.

This particular campaign in Israel's cyber war seemed to have been curtailed, at least temporarily, on August 29, soon after Shehadeh tracked the hackers to the West Bank ISP and, finally, to an Israeli phone number, while other computer professionals in the USA, along with some of the targeted activists themselves, quietly contacted management representatives at various IP addresses around the globe and notified them that their facilities were being abused.

Freelance Investigative Journalist and Commentator Michael Gillespie writes about Politics and Media for Media Monitors Network (MMN). His work also appears frequently in the popular Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.


by courtesy & 2002 Michael Gillespie
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