Anonymous, an international network of hackers, has been attacking official Saudi government websites. In an exclusive interview with DW, a group hacktivist explains why they have taken on Riyadh.
Almost as soon as Ali Mohammed al-Nimr's impending death sentence broke, Anonymous, a group of online hackers, vowed to take on the Saudi Arabian government.
The announcement was somewhat unusual for the group which is often perceived as focusing on campaigns of cyber security and espionage.
Seventeen-year-old al-Nimr, a Saudi Arabian national, was arrested in 2012 for his participation in the Arab Spring protests. A teenager at the time of his incarceration, al-Nimr claims to have been tortured during his three years of imprisonment. In May 2014, he was sentenced to death.
Appeals to two of the country's highest courts were rejected. Despite calls from Amnesty International and other rights organizations, al-Nimr's execution is now awaiting ratification by King Salman.
As al-Nimr's fate began to make headlines, Anonymous decided to take matters into their own hands and hack official Saudi Arabian government websites.
In an exclusive interview with DW, a member of Anonymous outlines what motived the group to attack Riyadh.
DW: How many people are there involved in this operation?
[There are] about 40 to 60 core members but there are people I don't even know hitting [attacking] websites. For the attack on the US embassy [in Riyadh], we set off for like 18 hours and I didn't even know the people that came to the lists of internet relay chat (IRCs).
How do you coordinate your actions if you haven't met each other?
Most attacks are made through the IRCs list: we make a list of IRCs, we check some of the information, see if the IRC wasn't safe [verify if the list is true]. If it's completely safe they [hackers] are willing to come in. I would coordinate - we have a target list, so someone chooses a target, the anonymous members scan the target [for vulnerable entry points or security flaws in the system] and attack.
How do you choose the target?
Most of the time, anyone will just randomly choose one through the list but it has to be one on the list.
Let's just back up for one second: can you explain the theory behind Anonymous, what Anonymous is for people that may not know?
Anonymous is an idea, not a group - there is no membership, anyone can be Anonymous, you can be Anonymous. We stand up to the government, show them what it's actually like - it's politics, it's about cyber privacy, censorship - mostly online, but in person as well.
The picture that many people have in their mind of Anonymous is an amorphous group of hackers fighting for internet freedom or cyber issues. But it seems as if al-Nimr's case is different from that.
We have always been about politics and government. In 2011 we did #OpTunisia - we took down the government basically. We hacked the prime minister's website and so they "firewalled" everyone, making it so you had to be in the country to access the websites.
There are also [operations] going on right now: #OpCyberPrivacy is a current op that is targeting the US and Canadian governments, [in response to the upcoming law] for cyber privacy, so it's all connected really.
There are hundreds of people that are imprisoned by governments around the world for political reasons. Why did Anonymous take up Ali's case in particular?
I think it's because he [is] so young. He's all about anti-government protests and we're totally against the government, so really he was doing us a favor and now we are doing him a favor.
It was also a social media trend at the time and we thought we'd do something about it. Saudi Arabia has been approved to be on the UN Human Rights Council. They're crucifying and beheading a 21-year-old - do you really want them to be in front of Human Rights at the UN? In addition to already having executed 127 people this year? It's not right.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr (right), as featured on a Facebook page set up to spare the now 21-year-old from execution
Is Ali's family or he himself aware of what you are doing to try to help?
I think they are - they know about all the support online.
How did you feel about the media coverage that this has attracted?
We're happy with all the coverage, because there's a higher chance that Ali will be saved. Of course it's a good for us because once Ali's saved we can return to other governments. We're not just some kids in our parents' basements - we can actually change something.
Can you talk a little bit about how this may be a new way to pressure governments?
It's not a new way, it's been around for years - like in Tunisia, we took down the government thanks to the Tunisian people, we sent care packages out to protesters to show them how to defend against tear gas, how to make gas masks. Currently some members are making a package for the Saudi people and Anonymous is inside of Saudi Arabia to protest.
In the package we have a guide for encryption, protection against chemical weapons, and information on how to bypass firewalls. If you ever get shut down in the country, tips on how to live stream protests, military first aid manuals, a bypass to censorship, the riot guides, a security starter pack and we spread it through Facebook and Twitter.
What will be the response if Ali is executed in the next few days?
He isn't going to be executed in the next few days, we'll make sure of that.
And if it does happen?
We're going to make sure that King Salman regrets it for the rest of his life.
Can you explain how you are using social media to coordinate your efforts?
Twitter is probably one of the best places to get it out because of the hashtags. Other Anons [Anonymous members] I have never spoken to before are also spreading the word and doing attacks. We have other "normal" people, with no skills at all, spreading the word and helping just as much as we are.
You're controlling [an Anonymous] Twitter account yourself right? Are you the center point of the operation?
No, the op is controlled by dozen of people. Loads of Anonymous [members] have access to it. I'm spreading the hashtag - just supporting the op.
Just to clarify: can you explain why you are protecting your identity and using a voice modifier?
Because we are Anonymous: we don't believe in names, we don't say who we are, we don't tell anyone any information. We don't want to be identified. Personally I have done nothing illegal - I'm just supporting the op, nothing is illegal apart from the attacks.
DW interviewed a member of Anonymous, an international network of hackers. The individual, who wishes to remain nameless, has stated he started the operation to attack government controlled websites in Saudi Arabia.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.