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Two men charged with hacking U.S. websites in retaliation for Soleimani’s death

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Sept. 15 (UPI) — The Justice Department said it has indicted two men on charges connected to the hacking of dozens of websites in retaliation for the U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

In an indictment dated Sept. 3 but unsealed Tuesday, Iranian national Behzad Mohammadzadeh and Marwan Abusrour of Palestine have been charged with one count of conspiring to commit intentional damage to a protected computer and one count of intentionally damaging a protected computer.

Prosecutors said they believe Mohammadzadeh is 19 years olds and Abusrour is 25 and both currently reside in their native countries and are wanted by U.S. authorities.

“These hackers are accused of orchestrating a brazen cyber-assault that defaced scores of websites across the country as a way of protesting and retaliating against the United States for killing the leader of a foreign terrorist organization,” Joseph R. Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Boston Division, said in a statement. “Now, they are wanted by the FBI and are no longer free to travel outside Iran or Palestine without risk of arrest.”

The FBI has listed the two men on its Cyber’s Most Wanted list, urging anyone with information about the pair to contact the FBI or the nearest U.S. embassy.

The indictment said the pair was behind the defacing of 51 websites hosted in the United States following the death of Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite arm of the Iranian military that the Trump administration designated as a U.S. terrorist organization.

President Donald Trump ordered the drone strike that killed Soleimani following violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that the administration blamed the revolutionary guard for instigating amid escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Prosecutors said that following the U.S. Department of Defense issuing a statement that it had killed Soleimani on Jan. 2, Mohammadzadeh transmitted computer code to the 51 websites and replaced their content with pictures of the slain military leader against a backdrop of the Iranian flag with the statement “down with America.”

By Jan. 7, Abusrour had provided Mohammadzadeh with access to at least seven more websites, which they also defaced, the indictment said.

“The hackers victimized innocent third parties in a campaign to retaliate for the military action that killed Soleimani, a man behind countless acts of terror against Americans and others that the Iranian regime opposed,” said John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for National Security. “Their misguided, illegal actions in support of a rogue, destabilizing regime will come back to haunt them, as they are now fugitives from justice.”

Prosecutors accuse the pair of starting to work together on Dec. 26 of last year when Abusrour began providing Mohammadzadeh with access to compromised websites.

According to the indictment, Mohammadzadeh has publicly claimed responsibility for defacing more than 1,100 websites with pro-Iranian and pro-hacker messages starting in 2018 while Abusrour has publicly taken credit for defacing more than 330 websites since June 2016.

“Foreign hackers are a persistent commercial and national security threat to the United States,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling. “Working with our law enforcement partners worldwide, we will aggressively pursue, prosecute and apprehend those who use the Internet to attack American interests.”

Neither the indictment nor prosecutors said which websites were defaced but that some of them were owned by a company with corporate headquarters in Massachusetts. A grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts was the authority that indicted the two men.

If convicted, they face up to five years in prison for the charge of conspiring to commit intentional damage to a protected computer and up to 10 years in prison for intentionally damaging a protected computer. Both charges come with three years of supervised release and a fine of at least $250,000.

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