Hackers target activists defending the right to self-determination in Western Sahara

A group of hackers who support the Moroccan government’s occupation of Wstern Sahara has been the source of a wave of attacks targeting pro-Saharawi organisations, including Adala UK, targeting the emails and social media accounts of Saharawi activists.

 Saharawi activists in the Occupied Territories of Western Sahara say they have been hacked regularly by individuals trying to access their online communications and networks. The hackers have also targeted groups who support the self-determination of Western Sahara but who work outside of the Occupied Territories.

The email account of Adala UK has recently been targeted. The hacker posed as ‘Mahfoud’, emailing to offer voluntary support to Adala UK and professing to support the Saharawi cause. A day later all Adala contacts received a spam email asking for urgent financial assistance.

Cris Baile from the Cambridge School of Technology explains that the account was hacked after the email from ‘Mahfoud’ had been opened which planted spyware on the email account and forwarded all emails received to another unknown account. All the account contacts and previous sent and received emails were deleted.

Brahim Dahan, President of ASVDH, a Saharawi human rights charity, told Adala UK: “our web page was targeted by hackers for a long period of time. Eventually the hackers managed to stop visitors from visiting our site as they were getting viruses”. Sandblast, a British NGO which supports Saharawis in the Refugee Camps through music projects, also had their website hacked and they were consequently offline for a few weeks.

These online attacks on NGOS form part of a hacking campaign which has been running for several years and includes attacks on the most popular dissident blogs against the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, such as ‘Equipemedia’ and ‘Western Sahara News’.

“All these attacks launched against blogs and social media networks and email addresses seem to have political motives because photos were posted of the Moroccan King and the Royal Family and phrases such as ‘Moroccan Sahara will always be Moroccan’ were used in the attacks”, commented one Saharawi activist.

Hundreds of Saharawis, including minors, have stated that whilst they were tortured in detention, they were forced to give the Moroccan authorities their login details for their Facebook accounts. These allegations have hitherto never been investigated by the Moroccan authorities.

One witness also told us: “Following the brutal intervention by the Moroccan authorities against a peaceful protest advocating self-determination in which I participated, I was punched and insulted and taken to the central police station where they tortured me for hours. They asked me how we all communicate in order to organise our protests and they made me give my memorable answer and password for my Facebook account so they could see the ‘chat’ history with my friends.”

Hackers rely on the fact that many NGOs that support the Saharawi people are run by volunteers who lack the necessary means to arm themselves against hackers or who do not know experts to whom they can turn to rectify the situation once they have been hacked. Many NGOs would also be wary of publicly revealing that a cyber-breach had occurred for fear of damaging the confidence that activists have put in the organisation by working with them in the first place.

Adala UK urges other organisations to consider revealing the ways in which they have been the victims of hacking, especially when they believe the motive to have been a political one. Our silence on this subject only serves to help the hackers and those who back them.

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