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A claim that just won’t die: No, Algerian hacker Hamza Bendelladj has not been executed

IN SHORT: The claim that famous hacker Hamza Bendelladj was “executed with a smile” has been online since 2016. It was false then, and it's still false in 2024. He has been in a US prison since 2013.

“This is Hamza Bendelladj. Hacked 217 banks and made 4000 million USD. Donated everything to Africa and Palestine. He was executed with a smile.”

This eight-year old zombie claim is again doing the rounds again on social media, including in Nigeria and South Africa, in April and May 2024.

Most versions of the claim use a graphic with a photo of a smiling man in handcuffs being escorted by two other men. Another photo shows a similar-looking man, also smiling, with a rope around his neck.

In South Africa, the graphic was posted on a Facebook page for supporters of the political party uMkhonto weSizwe, or MK, Party, with the comment: “He was Black conscientised.” The country held general elections on 29 May. 

The claim can also be seen here and here. (Note: See more instances listed at the end of this report.)

But as fact-checkers have been pointing out for years, the financial hacker Hamza Bendelladj is alive, although in a US prison. And the man in the noose is not Bendelladj.

Let’s explain.

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Who is Hamza Bendelladj?

Bendelladj is from the North African country of Algeria. He became known as the “smiling hacker” and the “happy hacker” because photos taken after his arrest in Thailand in 2013 show him with a big grin on his face. He has been extradited to the US.

In 2016, a US court sentenced Bendelladj, then 27, to 15 years in prison after finding him guilty of wire and bank fraud, computer fraud and abuse, and conspiracy to commit these crimes.

He and his accomplice, Russian hacker Aleksandr Panin, developed malicious software known as SpyEye. The virus would infect people’s computers and steal banking logins, credit card details, usernames, passwords and other personal information. They also sold the malware to other hackers.

According to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, SpyEye was the “preeminent malware for cyber criminals” from 2009 to 2011, used to infect more than 10 million computers and causing nearly US$1 billion “in financial harm to individuals and institutions”.

In 2015, while Bendelladj was on trial, there were rumours that he had donated the money he stole to Palestine. But no proof of this has emerged. There’s also no evidence that he donated it “to Africa”, whatever that means.

There were also rumours that the US court would sentence him to death. This prompted the US ambassador to Algeria to take to X (formerly Twitter) to say: “Computer crimes are not capital crimes & are not punishable by the death penalty.”

Hacker set to be released in July 2024

Bendelladj is, at time of publication, being held at the Terminal Island low-security federal prison in San Pedro, a city in the US state of California. According to the federal prisons inmates locator, he is set to be released on 6 July 2024.

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The smiling hacker was not executed. So who is the man with the rope around his neck?

As Africa Check found when we debunked the same claim back in February 2020, the photo shows Majid Kavousifar, who was publicly executed in the Middle Eastern country of Iran in 2007 for the murder of a judge.

The claim that Bendelladj was “executed with a smile” has been online since February 2016, and has appeared sporadically every year since then. Its resurgence in 2024 may have something to do with Israel’s war on the Palestinian territory of Gaza. But it remains false.

The claim can also be seen here, here and here.

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