STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. The Internet has become a battleground in the ongoing conflict in Syria. The Assad regime has mounted a sophisticated surveillance campaign monitoring and arresting activists by tracking their Facebook pages.
INSKEEP: The monitoring is done by the government's Electronic Army, an arm of the Syrian military. But online rebels have mounted a counteroffensive.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Deborah Amos reports on one cyber-rebel who's fighting a lonely war in front of a computer screen in a cramped hotel room near the Syrian border.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: When we meet on the streets of Kilis, a Turkish border town, he says his name is Ahmad Heidar. This 28-year-old software engineer, in black suit, tie and dark glasses, hardly looks like a rebel. But he's better known by his online name: Harvester. He's a hacker, and he's waging an electronic battle against the Assad regime, trying to shut down the website of the Syrian Electronic Army.
AHMAD HEIDAR: Yeah. It's my red flag, like a bull, you know. I just hate that website.
AMOS: Can you beat the Syrian Electronic Army?
HEIDAR: Not alone. Like, no one can take an army alone, you know.
AMOS: He chose sides in the summer of 2011 when protests spread across the country and the regime was gearing up to stamp out dissent. In Aleppo, he was approached by an Assad government recruiter for a new electronic warfare unit that needed software engineers. If he joined, he was told, it would count as his mandatory military service.
HEIDAR: They offered me a place there, so I couldn't say no, like, right away. It was like a normal computer shop. It's, like, got a back door, and it was another world.
AMOS: What he saw was an underground bunker with banks of sophisticated technology.
HEIDAR: American, like several that I've never seen before. I asked more about it. I just wanted to know, like, how strong they were.
AMOS: Very strong, he concluded, as this electronic army tracked activists through Facebook pages, leading to arrest and often torture.
HEIDAR: And they did, actually. Yeah, they got arrested.
AMOS: He turned down the offer to join the regime and turned instead to protecting anti-government activists.
HEIDAR: We will get a call, like some student at the university. He's in prison now. Do something about it. Like clean up his page.
AMOS: As the Harvester, he hacked into the student's Facebook pages and Skype accounts for the cleanup, removing anything incriminating, anything that connected an arrested activist to the revolt.
HEIDAR: We replaced the flag of the revolution with pornography.
AMOS: With pornography?
HEIDAR: Like pictures, you know, to keep investigator, you know, busy.
AMOS: And it worked.
HEIDAR: They would come out of prison, you know. They would say, like, they were tortured a little bit, but not serious. But it worked.
AMOS: It also worked when he helped another group of hackers break through the firewall of the pro-regime TV station Al-Dunya. As a newscast began, a message appeared on the screen: President Bashar Assad stepped down for the good of the people. Ahmad was at home with his family at the time.
HEIDAR: It was actually just a breaking news banner.
AMOS: Did you see it when it ran on TV?
HEIDAR: Well, yeah. We saw it. Because, actually, my dad didn't want me to do anything stupid, as he said at that time, and he just rolled his eyes at me. But we continued, actually, for months.
AMOS: But electricity and the Internet have been out for months in his hometown of Aleppo. So he slipped across the border to southern Turkey and lives out of a suitcase in this cold, cramped hotel room.
HEIDAR: Oh, my god. I'm so embarrassed already.
AMOS: It's barely big enough for a narrow single bed and a computer stand. This is where he has drawn up his latest plan: a rescue robot named Tina.
HEIDAR: Can you see my little baby?
AMOS: This is your robot?
HEIDAR: Yeah, a simulation.
AMOS: On the screen, there's a big metal box with computer-controlled titanium arms that scoop up the victims of snipers shot on the streets of Aleppo. He's watched the real thing hundreds of times - videos of sniper victims and attempts to rescue them.
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HEIDAR: And in some videos, you would see four being killed because of one leg injury.
AMOS: In this one a woman is sprawled on the ground. Several men risk gunfire to help.
HEIDAR: It's a bunch of guys trying to get this poor lady, you know.
AMOS: They are dragging her with ropes.
HEIDAR: Ropes and metal bars, you know. I respect those guys because it's everything they got, right? But I can do more.
AMOS: He's got approval from Turkish authorities to build a prototype for his rescue robot. He's looking for donations to support his team of rebel programmers.
HEIDAR: I'm going to play reggae music just for the injured guy - he won't freak out of this big thing coming toward him. If you think I'm crazy, I am. You're right.
AMOS: For now, he refining his plans for a man-sized box with robot arms to save lives on the streets of Syria.
Deborah Amos. NPR News.