The group that claimed to launch large, sustained cyber attacks against the websites of several major U.S. financial institutions told ABC News it is not acting on behalf of and is not supported by the Iranian government, contrary to recent news reports.
In an email interview Wednesday, a self-described member of the so-called al-Qassam Cyber Fighters told ABC News the group was made up of computer-savvy volunteers who have taken to cyber space to spread the protest against an anti-Islam film made in California.
"No government or organization is supporting us and we do not wait for any support as well," the member said. "Do you think that the massive protests in the world are done with support? [In] the same manner [that] millions of Muslims in the world protested, hackers are also part of this protest."
In mid-September al-Qassam issued a declaration online in which the group warned it would be attacking major U.S. financial institutions including Bank of America and the New York Stock Exchange in response to a trailer posted online for the extremely low-budget film "The Innocence of Muslims." The film, which depicts the Prophet Mohammed as a fraud and pedophile, sparked real-world protests in more than a dozen countries in September.
In the days following al-Qassam's threats, websites for the institutions named in the online posting, as well as other major banks including PNC and Wells Fargo, appeared to be the victims of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, which overloaded the websites and temporarily knocked many offline.
Cyber security expert and ABC News consultant Richard Clarke said the websites were hit with a deluge of malicious traffic "twice as large as any flood we have ever seen." The attacks did not penetrate the banks' internal network, but kept customers from accessing their accounts online for hours.
While al-Qassam made their online declarations in English and Arabic, many U.S. news outlets, including ABC News, reported that U.S. officials suspected hackers in Iran, where Farsi is the native tongue, had been involved. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) told C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" that the cyber attacks were a "powerful example of our vulnerability" and said he believed they were "done by Iran" as a response to the American and European sanctions on the Middle Eastern nation.
A Distributed Denial of Service attack is a relatively unsophisticated cyber operation in which a hacker or group of hackers utilize often pre-written code to inundate a target website with traffic until it is overloaded. The tactic, a favorite of the loose hackivist collective Anonymous, is a far cry from the complexity of powerful cyber weapons such as the Stuxnet or Flame malware that have been attributed to well-funded, coordinated efforts by nation states.
The al-Qassam member who spoke to ABC News also denied the group took part in the reported hack of a Saudi oil firm, Aramco, in August that deleted data from tens of thousands of computers. Several news outlets cited anonymous current and former U.S. officials who said they believed Iran may have been involved in that attack as well, but Iran has denied any role and Bloomberg recently reported that evidence suggested a lone insider was likely to blame.
The al-Qassam member reiterated Wednesday to ABC News that the ultimate goal of the group's attacks on the financial institutions was the removal of the "Innocence of Muslims" video and said the group will continue to hit the bank and stock exchange websites until it is done.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Wednesday that major U.S. financial institutions were "actively under attack" but declined to go into detail.
As of this report, websites for the NYSE, PNC, Wells Fargo and Bank of America appeared to be functioning properly.