The Hackers of Damascus

My story on the cyberwar in Syria is the cover story of this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek.

Taymour Karim didn’t crack under interrogation. His Syrian captors beat him with their fists, with their boots, with sticks, with chains, with the butts of their Kalashnikovs. They hit him so hard they broke two of his teeth and three of his ribs. They threatened to keep torturing him until he died. “I believed I would never see the sun again,” he recalls. But Karim, a 31-year-old doctor who had spent the previous months protesting against the government in Damascus, refused to give up the names of his friends.

It didn’t matter. His computer had already told all. “They knew everything about me,” he says. “The people I talked to, the plans, the dates, the stories of other people, every movement, every word I said through Skype. They even knew the password of my Skype account.” At one point during the interrogation, Karim was presented with a stack of more than 1,000 pages of printouts, data from his Skype chats and files his torturers had downloaded remotely using a malicious computer program to penetrate his hard drive. “My computer was arrested before me,” he says.

Much has been written about the rebellion in Syria: the protests, the massacres, the car bombs, the house-to-house fighting. Tens of thousands have been killed since the war began in early 2011. But the struggle for the future of the country has also unfolded in another arena—on a battleground of Facebook pages and YouTube accounts, of hacks and counterhacks. Just as rival armies vie for air superiority, the two sides of the Syrian civil war have spent much of the last year and a half locked in a struggle to dominate the Internet. Pro-government hackers have penetrated opposition websites and broken into the computers of Reuters and Al Jazeera to spread disinformation. On the other side, the hacktivist group Anonymous has infiltrated at least 12 Syrian government websites, including that of the Ministry of Defense, and released millions of stolen e-mails.

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Why Always Mario?

The cover of TIME’s international edition this week is the profile I did with Catherine Mayer on the Italian football player Mario Balotelli.

This game won’t turn out well for Mario Balotelli, but Manchester City’s star striker is always watchable. A Mohawk adds a bristling inch to his strapping frame, and even by the balletic, fast-paced standards of top-tier football, he moves with a mesmeric grace, twisting past defenders without losing speed. Sometimes he attracts attention for the wrong reasons too. Eighteen and a half minutes into the Oct. 20 match with West Bromwich Albion, his tackle on an opponent is deemed a foul, and the referee brandishes a yellow card. A further infringement risks earning a red card, banishing Balotelli and leaving City a man short. He knows he ought to accept the decision as surely as everyone watching knows he will not. And soon enough he is arguing with the referee, returning at the halftime whistle to remonstrate with him again until a teammate roughly pushes the player away.

Whether on the pitch or in private, Balotelli seems to generate energy rather than burn it. Dramas flare around him; passions ignite. When he isn’t playing, he fidgets. But if called to take a penalty, at the very peak of pressure, he turns icily calm. Since signing with the English Premier League club in 2010, “Super Mario” hasn’t missed a spot kick at the goal. (Lionel Messi, Barcelona’s most prolific scorer and winner of this year’s European Golden Boot award for racking up the most goals in the season, had a success rate from penalties of 82%.) “It’s just like a game of mind, me and the goalkeeper,” says Balotelli of his perfect penalty record. “Me, I know how to control my mind.” The secret lies in his distinctive stuttering run-up to the ball, so different from his usual fluidity. He waits for the goalkeeper to guess at the likely trajectory of his shot and in that fraction of a second aims into the opposite corner of the net. “When the goalkeeper moves before me, it means that in this game of mind he lost,” he says.

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