WASHINGTON – Hackers wreaked electronic havoc Thursday on Internet sites operated by the Arab television network Al-Jazeera, diverting Web surfers to pornography and to a page with a U.S. flag and the message "Let Freedom Ring."
Hackers impersonating an Al-Jazeera employee tricked one of the Internet's most popular Web addressing companies, Network Solutions Inc., into making technical changes that effectively turned over temporary control of the network's Arabic and English Web sites.
The changes -- similar to replacing exit signs on a highway to misdirect travelers -- were to be fixed by midnight. But it was expected to be at least 12 hours afterward before Al-Jazeera's sites would properly be available worldwide, said Brian O'Shaughnessy, a spokesman for Network Solutions.
Hackers calling themselves the "Freedom Cyber Force Militia" initially redirected Internet traffic destined for Al-Jazeera's Web site in English to a different Web page on computers operated by Networld Connections Inc., an Internet provider in Salt Lake City. That site was shut down hours later.
The FBI was investigating, spokesman Paul Bresson said.
The page included the message, "God bless our troops," signed by a self-described "Patriot." There was no response to e-mail sent to an address on the Web page.
Al-Jazeera's site in Arabic was sending Web surfers at one point Thursday to a pornography site.
"Certainly, it has been hacked," acknowledged Jihad Ali Ballout, a spokesman for Al-Jazeera. He described the attack as "a frontal, vicious attack on freedom of the press" and urged anyone with information to contact authorities.
Later Thursday, Al-Jazeera's site in English was redirected again to another Internet provider with the message that it was "taken over by Saimoon Bhuiyan."
"Our system notified us that an error had occurred in this update," O'Shaughnessy said. "We worked with [Al-Jazeera] and we've corrected it."
The mistake was embarrassing for Network Solutions, and for its parent company, VeriSign Inc., which sells authentication and security services in addition to maintaining the master records for all Web addresses ending in ".com" and ".net."
Network Solutions offers several optional layers of security for customers requesting technical changes that affect their Web sites.
"This sounds like a very low-tech attack," said David Endler of iDefense Inc., an Internet security company in Reston, Va. "It probably didn't take a lot of effort, probably a fake phone call or fax. It's amazing how often the human element comes into play with security breaches. You can have levels of authentication, but obviously one person has the ability to circumvent all that."
The Arab network's Web sites have been suffering disruptions for days, ever since showing pictures of dead and captive U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar, is an unusually independent voice in the Arab world.