The vulnerability of news sites to attack was dramatically exposed after hackers forced the closure of the English language news site of Arabic satellite broadcaster, Al-Jazeera.

Early connectivity problems appeared to be the result of an overwhelming onslaught of traffic to the two sites.

"This was not really a hack, or a crack," explained Mike Butcher, editor of "This was a distributed denial of service attack by somebody who wanted to effectively crash the Al-Jazeera web site by loading it up with millions of page impressions."

As well as suffering from a number of technical problems, both the Arabic and English versions of the Qatar-based broadcaster's web site were hit after went live on Monday (24 March 2003). Both have now been unavailable for two days.

Mr Butcher explains: "Most news sites these days have such high bandwidth and technology available that they can take and spread the load across servers.

"However, Al-Jazeera is not a large media organisation so it just doesn't have the resources to deal with this kind of attack."

It is believed the broadcaster was targeted after publishing images of dead and captured US soldiers on the site, as well as the network's broadcasts of the Iraqi interviews with captured US servicemen and women.

By Thursday (27 March 2003), the Arabic version of Al-Jazeera's web site appeared to have been conventionally hacked by a group calling itself the Freedom Cyber Force Militia (see screen grab above). The home page featured a US flag in the shape of North America and captionsed "God Bless Our Troops."

"Hosting the site in New Jersey is a red rag to a bull," said Mr Butcher. "The editorial policy of Al-Jazeera - not to edit their broadcasts of PoWs and dead servicemen - may have upset a hacker out there who has decided to go for it.

"It's fairly rudimentary to organise a distributed denial of service attack and there are tools available for hackers to use, called script kiddies. They just download the software and make the software attack a web site in that fashion.

"While you can broadcast what you like on television, with the internet you have to put the structures in place to cope with any reaction."

Al-Jazeera presents news from an Arab perspective and has been criticised in the West for doing so. It also previously courted controversy by screening footage of Osama Bin Laden following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The Arabic version of the site published the images of the captured and dead US soldiers over the weekend and maintained service, yet buckled on Tuesday after the launch of the English version.

Mr Butcher believes this may be a harbinger for other kinds of attacks: "This is going to be a precursor to a debate of what we can and can't see in this war.

"It is beholden on news organisations to ensure they comply with the rules of the Geneva Convention. These apply as much online as anywhere else."


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