Security Experts:

Middle East Hackers Target Government Departments, U.S. Financial Institution

Researchers at FireEye have identified a spate of attacks coming from a group of Middle Eastern hackers targeting multiple European government organizations and at least one financial institution in the U.S.

The attacks occurred between April 29 and May 27, and have been traced to a campaign known as 'Operation Molerats'. The recent attacks reuse the same command and control infrastructure and tactics as previous attacks, according to FireEye. Among the victims: government departments in countries such as Israel, Slovenia and the U.S.; the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC); and the Office of the Quarter Representative.

"Previous Molerats campaigns have used several garden-variety, freely available backdoors such as CyberGate and Bifrost, but, most recently, we have observed them making use of the PIVY (Poison Ivy) and Xtreme RATs," according to FireEye. "Previous campaigns made use of at least one of three observed forged Microsoft certificates, allowing security researchers to accurately tie together separate attacks even if the attacks used different backdoors. There also appears to be a habitual use of lures or decoy documents – in either English or Arabic-language – with content focusing on active conflicts in the Middle East. The lures come packaged with malicious files that drop the Molerats’ flavor of the week, which happen to all be Xtreme RAT binaries in these most recent campaigns."

The means of the attack varied somewhat. In at least one example, the attackers used a spearphishing email with a malicious link. In other cases, the emails contained malicious attachments.

Hacking activities in the Middle East have been on the rise for the past few years. Just recently, Iranian attackers developed more than a dozen fake identities on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter as part of a cyber-espionage effort that began in 2011. Using the phony identities, the attackers were able to successfully connect to more than 2,000 individuals.

Earlier this year, researchers at Symantec noted that the njRAT remote access tool is gaining popularity among attacker groups in the Middle East. The tool, which has been publicly available since June 2013, is developed and supported by Arabic speakers and is capable of downloading and executing additional malware, logging keystrokes and taking other actions. It spreads using infected USB keys and networked drives.

The Molerats activity goes back a few years, and was spotted in 2012 using the XtremeRAT and PoisonIvy malware.

"Although a large number of attacks against our customers appear to originate from China, we are tracking lesser-known actors also targeting the same firms," according to FireEye. "Molerats campaigns seem to be limited to only using freely available malware; however, their growing list of targets and increasingly evolving techniques in subsequent campaigns are certainly noteworthy."

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