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The real Sabu

He was one of the world's foremost hackers...until he betrayed his friends to the FBI. Kevin Rawlinson recounts his personal interactions with Sabu.

“Message from Sabu”, said a small bubble in the bottom corner of the screen.

It sat there, flashing orange, indicating that the leader of LulzSec had finally responded to repeated attempts to make contact. In a rare interview with The Independent, he would threaten further hacking attacks, announce he would target journalists and media organisations and promise to expose those he denounced as “charlatans”.

It was late June 2011. Three weeks earlier, FBI agents had first knocked on Hector Xavier Monsegur’s door. Though nobody knew it at the time, he had already taken the first steps down the road which would eventually lead to the betrayal of some of those closest to him.

This week, it emerged that he later pleaded guilty to 12 charges of computer hacking and subsequently spent months secretly working for the FBI.

During the interview, he was curt and cagey – perhaps understandably. He seemed condescending towards anyone who was not a “hacktivist”, as well as to many who were. The resulting picture was of an intelligent man who also seemed vain. Other people using his favourite chatroom seemed in awe of him.

“Let me see your questions,” he fired back when the idea of an interview was first raised. Sabu was reluctant to get into an open conversation, saying: “We’re not talking over the phone.” Instead, he used the interview to insist he was not worried about repeated attempts by rival hackers to “dox” him – discover his real identity.

Asked if he was having sleepless nights over the issue, he was dismissive. “Not at all. they have hit me with 6 or 7 different identities. thats proof that I’m not worried,” he said.

That conversation, the first of a series, came the day after his hacking group LulzSec had announced its intention to disband. Monsegur alone knew what lay ahead. But he was doing a good job of covering it up. In the future, he said, “We’ll be focussing on corruption in governments and banks but will also be targeting journalists. the change is merely from lulz to more polotical. we’ll work in the same fashion...”

Monsegur formed LulzSec in May 2011. Within weeks he had become both the most recognisable name in the “hacktivism” movement – and later its most valuable FBI informant.

“He definitely had a fanbase,” said one hacker yesterday. “But it consisted mostly of people who don’t actually do much themselves. He was perceived as a ‘master hacker’, whether he was or not I don’t know, but that was probably what made him popular. That, and he adopted some of the same values as LulzSec; the ‘for the lulz [laughs]’ attitude.”

With the benefit of hindsight, there are those who have claimed they knew – or at least suspected – that Sabu had been turned. “He was not welcome here, we had suspicions about him. His behaviour changed, it seemed strange,” one hacker said yesterday.