As Al Arabiya pursued legal remedy to regain control of its website domain messages poured into the comments forum as users debated why the site had been hacked, whether it was part of a broader Sunni-Shiite cyberwar, and who might be behind the attacks.
Most of the comments left on the English site condemned the attacks and voiced support for AlArabiya.net, although several accused the site of sectarian partiality and debated whether or not the site was biased.
The Arabic site, which has been online since 2004, garnered hundreds of comments with users more divided in their condemnation and praise for the hackers. Some praised the hackers because they do not like that Al Arabiya publishes articles about sex, entertainment and religious oddities.
Others expressed their support for Al Arabiya’s brand of unabashed news coverage and wrote that they hoped the site would be back to its regular domain soon.
"[I]t is even more free than some of western media, sometimes i said something really critical of muslims or islam (not abusing words), my commnets were shown," wrote one user.
Many also condemned the divisive cyberwar that has pitted Sunni hackers against Shiia hackers in tit-for-tat cyberattacks that have disabled around 1,200 websites over the past three weeks.
This might be a ... conspiracy to fuel anti-shia sentiment in the sunni world," wrote Alamgir-Pakistan.
Conspiracy theories also floated about, with users blaming Israel, America, and Al Arabiya itself. Some wondered whether the so-called Sunni-Shiite divide was but a product of foreign intelligence services seeking to sow seeds of sectarian discontent to divide Muslims.
"The editors of Al-Arabiya should know better than to show division among the Muslims," wrote Ziomania, who also accused "the Jews" of being behind the cyber-attacks.
A few devoted readers took it upon themselves to investigate the incident and posted the results of their inquiry online, including contact information and other details of the alleged hacker.
Al Arabiya site, www.alarabiya.net, is registered through Network Solutions but on Thursday night hackers managed to re-register the domain name through a U.S.-based company, GoDaddy.
The editors of Al-Arabiya should know better than to show division among the Muslims
The hackers, allegedly Shiites, were unable to access website content but gained control of the domain name and replaced it with a message warning against continued attacks on Shiite websites.
"If attacks on Shiite websites continue, none of your websites will be safe," read the message that appeared on the site under a picture of a burning Israeli flag with a list of 100 "Sunni" sites that were also hacked. Hours later the picture was replaced by a photo of a Leopard and the names of the hackers, though religious references were removed.
The website was temporarily moved to www.alarabiya.tv as Al Arabiya launched a legal battle to regain its domain name and identify the hackers.
Last month, prominent Sunni religious commentator Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi charged that Shiites were "invading" Sunni societies. A tit-for-tat cyber war disabled websites belonging to both sects as Shiite and Sunni hackers infiltrated religious websites and uploaded their own messages.
The UAE-based Sunni hacker group Ghoroub X.P. targeted about 300 primarily religious Shiite websites in mid-September followed by retaliation that disabled up to 900 Sunni religious sites.
Shiite imam Fadl Allah Nasm-Eddine, director of the Paris-based Shia Islamic Center, criticized the most recent cyber attack, and called Al Arabiya “neutral and respectable" in an interview with France 24.
“I don’t think that the hackers are Shias but I think some people do criticize the station’s programs which are often favorable to Gulf countries”, which are mainly Sunni, the station’s website quoted him as saying. “It’s a news station. It should be allowed to function.”
AlArabiya.net has a liberal comments policy that allows users to express their views freely, and is therefore regarded as more tolerant than other Arabic news sites, said the website's editorial manager, Anas Fouda.
Al Arabiya published all comments regardless of their support for the website.
I don’t think that the hackers are Shias but I think some people do criticize the station’s programs which are often favorable to Gulf countries
Fadl Allah Nasm-Eddine, Shiite imam
The attack on Al Arabiya and other sites is the latest in a growing trend of information warfare. Cyberterrorism is a growing threat that costs the economy billions of dollars annually. Internet attacks have been increasing at a rate of 60 percent per year, according to the non-profit Computer Crime Research Center.
The Russia-Georgia standoff this summer included an element of cyberwarfare in which the official site of the president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, was disabled and forced to re-host its domain in the United States.
Israel and Hezbollah have been engaged in an on-again-of-again cyberwar that has included coordinated attacks by Israeli and U.S. users on Hezbollah’s official and mirror sites, an Arab attack on Israel’s government website and Foreign Ministry site and attacks on e-commerce sites in Israel.
Officials and experts from more than 30 countries met in May to create an international platform to improve coordination against cyber-terrorism. The World Cyber Security Summit brings together resources from the public and private sectors to combat cyberthreats.
In addition, many countries have adopted laws that make cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism punishable offenses on par with their offline counterparts.
Saudi Arabia's hacking laws include one year in prison and a fine of up to half a million riyals (about $133,000). Creating a website that supports terrorism carries a five year prison term and a five million riyal (about $1.3 million) fine.