Alex Rowell

‘Anonymous Lebanon’ promises more to come after Bassil leaks

Following revelations of Foreign Minister Bassil’s substantial real estate holdings, cyber activists tell NOW they’ll target more politicians

A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask stands near the White House during the Anonymous Million Mask March on the streets of downtown Washington, DC on 5 November 2015. (AFP/Paul J Richards)

Until last week, few in Lebanon had heard of the group calling itself Anonymous Lebanon, the self-designated local chapter of the global Anonymous movement that made its name hacking high-profile targets ranging from the US and Israeli governments to the Church of Scientology to the Stratfor intelligence firm to the personal emails of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 


Launched in late August at the height of the #YouStink protest movement, Anonymous Lebanon had done little of note beyond temporarily disabling certain ministry websites, and neither the media nor the authorities paid them particular attention.


That changed last Monday, when a major Lebanese TV network broadcast documents leaked to their staff by Anonymous Lebanon revealing that Gebran Bassil, Lebanon’s foreign minister and president of the Free Patriotic Movement, had acquired 38 properties, collectively worth an estimated $22 million, since the return from exile in 2005 of his father-in-law and political patron, MP Michel Aoun. In a subsequent press conference, Bassil did not dispute the authenticity of the documents, claiming the properties were inherited from his father and grandfather — a claim the producers of the TV show reject.


The ensuing scandal has prompted speculation — confirmed by Anonymous Lebanon in correspondence with NOW — that other politicians may soon face similar revelations about their financial holdings. In a tweet Monday afternoon, the presenter of the same TV show hinted Telecoms Minister Boutros Harb may be the next target of scrutiny.



How did Anonymous get the documents?


Among the mysteries of the matter is how Anonymous Lebanon acquired the documents, on which the name of the Finance Ministry’s General Directorate of Real Estate Affairs (GDREA) is visibly printed in the video report. In a written exchange with NOW, an Anonymous Lebanon spokesperson declined to explain how they did it, saying, “If we disclose our methods we might not be able to leak any further documents, as it is really hard to do so in a government that does not store any information on the internet.”


Nor did George Maarawi, general director of the GDREA, know how the data escaped his department.


“We do not have answers for the moment,” Maarawi told NOW. “We are still investigating within the directorate how these leaks happened.”


The possibilities, said Maarawi, included a whistleblower-style leak from within, or a hack of the network, or a leak or hack of other departments, such as the directorates of revenues and VAT, which have access to the same data. Irrespective of the results of the internal investigations, Maarawi added, the directorate has “started from this day to take steps to combat such leaks.”


According to Dr. Haidar Harmanani, Lebanese American University professor of computer science, the more likely of the possible scenarios is a leak “by an employee or someone who has physical access to the database files.” If it were, on the other hand, a hack, Harmanani told NOW the hypothetical methods used could include a cracked, leaked or “sniffed” password for the ministry database, or malware planted in the network “by entering the building or through someone inside,” which would then “search/capture the network and steal the password.”


Both possible explanations — a paper leak or a digital hack — prompt further questions. If the ministry’s system was hacked, the hackers would have had access to the real estate holdings of dozens of politicians. Why release Bassil’s only? They wouldn’t, according to their spokesperson, who told NOW they “did not target Gebran Bassil in particular” and would “disclose anything we get [on other politicians] as soon as we get it.”


But if, then, the documents were simply extracted physically from the ministry building, this would require no computing expertise at all, and would thus be out of step with the usual modus operandi of ‘hacktivists’ such as Anonymous. Why would those in possession of the documents not just leak them directly to the media? Perhaps future leaks, if they are indeed forthcoming, will provide answers.



Who are Anonymous Lebanon?


As their name suggests, they would prefer nobody to know. When contacted by NOW, they agreed to talk only on the condition that “we will not answer any question related to the personal life of any Anonymous member.” Speaking in English last month live on air — using a voice distorter — to the same TV network that broadcast their leaks, a member of the group painted a picture of a motley of activists, saying, “We are students, we are employees, we are young, we are old.” Beyond this, they have given away few clues to their identity, except that they tweet in a mix of English and Lebanese Arabic, and have implied at least once that they were physically present during some of the recent anti-government demonstrations in Beirut.


They did, however, elaborate to NOW on their links with the global Anonymous movement, saying “we are part of the international group, of course.” Asked what this meant in practical terms, the spokesperson said “we […] coordinate our activities with them […] but at the same time we have full control over our own operations. We receive no training, but if we call for help or backup, fellow Anons will help us.”



What do they want?


Their description on Twitter states their “main objective is the disposal of The Corrupted Government [sic].” In a video message released last month, the group also specifically demanded an end to violence by Lebanese security forces against peaceful demonstrators, and a solution to the trash crisis “taking in consideration the plans offered by the protestors themselves.”


To these ends, they vow to continue their campaign against any and all government entities and representatives upon whom they can get their hands.


“We are targeting every political member,” they told NOW. “Gebran Bassil was the first, but he wasn’t the only one.”


Alex Rowell tweets @disgraceofgod


Amin Nasr contributed reporting.

The Lebanese chapter of the global ‘hacktivist’ group was formed at the height of the #YouStink movement in August 2015. (AFP/Paul J Richards)

We are targeting every political member,” they told NOW. “Gebran Bassil was the first, but he wasn’t the only one.”