BY: CONOR FINNEGAN, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — Two foreign hackers have been indicted for defacing dozens of U.S.-based websites with pictures of late Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani alongside the message, “Down with America.”
The cyberattacks may be another sign of Iranian efforts to retaliate for President Donald Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani with a U.S. drone strike in January. News of the indictments come days after reports that Iran was plotting to kill the U.S. ambassador to South Africa and months after Iranian missiles injured over 100 U.S. service members in Iraq.
Iranian Behzad Mohammadzadeh and Palestinian Marwan Abusrour were charged with conspiracy to commit intentional damage to a protected computer and two counts of intentional damage to a protected computer in an indictment unsealed in a federal court in Massachusetts on Tuesday.
Both men are overseas and not under arrest, with their chances of facing these charges slim.
Shortly after Soleimani’s death was confirmed, Mohammadzadeh “transmitted computer code to approximately 51 websites hosted in the United States and defaced those websites by replacing their content with pictures of the late General Soleimani against a background of the Iranian flag, along with the message, in English, ‘Down with America’ and other text,” the indictment said.
Abusrour is accused of providing Mohammadzadeh access to at least seven sites, where the 19-year-old Iranian hacker posted the images and text.
Two hackers, an Iranian and a Palestinian, have just been indicted in @DMAnews1 with defacing dozens of US-based websites with pictures of Qasem Soleimani and the message “Down with America”
Behzad Mohammadzadeh and Marwan Abusrour face three federal counts pic.twitter.com/XKECdbNQZ0
— Aaron Katersky (@AaronKatersky) September 15, 2020
“Those website defacements were part of the defendants’ ongoing efforts to hack into and deface websites across the globe,” the indictment alleged.
Prosecutors did not say whether the two hackers acted at the behest of the Iranian government.
But Tehran has taken steps to avenge the death of Soleimani, who was the country’s second-most powerful figure as the decorated commander of its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
South Africa’s State Security Agency said Monday that it is providing “the necessary attention … to ensure that no harm will be suffered by the U.S. Ambassador,” Lana Marks, the noted handbag designer and a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club.
The security agency’s statement came after Politico reported Sunday that U.S. intelligence was concerned the Iranian government was weighing an assassination attempt against Marks, who became U.S. envoy in October 2019.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry has denied the report as “baseless” and “predictable … anti-Iranian accusations and falsification ahead of the U.S. presidential election.”
Trump used the report to threaten an overwhelming response against Iran, telling Fox News Tuesday, “If they do anything to anybody, they will be hit a thousand times harder than they hit us.”
After the U.S. strike that killed Soleimani and the Iraqi leader of a Shiite militia group outside Baghdad, Iran launched a series of short-range ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases where U.S. troops are housed. The barrage resulted in 109 U.S. service members suffering traumatic brain injuries.
The U.S. did not respond, instead claiming to have restored “deterrence” against Iran. Trump downplayed those injuries as “headaches and a couple of other things. … I don’t consider them very serious injuries.”
Abusrour, who the FBI alleged has defaced at least 337 sites around the world, appeared to incriminate himself on Instagram, bragging about providing information to allegedly carry out this hack.
“Suddenly I find myself Iranian hackers and I help them hit American sites,” he said in a comment on Mohammadzadeh’s account. Mohammadzadeh is reportedly responsible for defacing more than 1,100 websites with pro-Iranian and pro-hacker messages.
ABC News’ Aaron Katersky, Luke Barr and Liezl Thom contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.