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By Matt Smith
DUBAI (Reuters) - Syria's civil war and political strife in Egypt have thrown up new battlegrounds on the Web and driven a surge in cyber attacks in the Middle East, according to a leading Internet security company.
More than half of incidents in the Gulf this year were so-called "hacktivist" attacks - which account for only a quarter of cybercrime globally - as politically motivated programmers sabotaged opposing groups or institutions, executives from Intel Corp's software security division McAfee said on Tuesday.
"It's mostly bringing down websites and defacing them with political messages - there has been a huge increase in cyber attacks in the Middle East," Christiaan Beek, McAfee director for incident response forensics in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), told Reuters.
He attributed the attacks to the conflict in Syria, political turmoil in Egypt and the activities of hacking collective Anonymous.
"It's difficult for people to protest in the street in the Middle East and so defacing websites and denial of service (DOS) attacks are a way to protest instead," said Beek.
DOS attacks flood an organization's website causing it to crash, but usually do little lasting damage.
The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a hacking group loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, defaced an Internet recruiting site for the U.S. Marine Corps on Monday and recently targeted the New York Times website and Twitter, as well other websites within the Middle East.
Beek described SEA as similar to Anonymous.
"There's a group leading operations, with a support group of other people that can help," said Beek.
McAfee opened a centre in Dubai on Monday to deal with the rising threat of Internet sabotage in the region, the most serious of which are attacks to extract proprietary information from companies or governments or those that cause lasting damage to critical infrastructure.
Cyber attacks are mostly focused on Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, Qatar, the top liquefied natural gas supplier, and Dubai, which is the region's financial, commercial and aviation hub, said Gert-Jan Schenk, McAfee president for EMEA.
"It's where the wealth and critical infrastructure is concentrated," he said.
The "Shamoon" virus last year targeted Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil company, damaging about 30,000 computers in what may have been the most destructive attack against the private sector.
"Ten years ago, it was all about trying to infect as many people as possible," added Schenk. "Today we see more and more attacks being focused on very small groups of people. Sometimes malware is developed for a specific department in a specific company."
(Editing by David Cowell)