Middle East cyber-espionage is heating up with a new group joining the fold

New Lyceum APT is targeting oil and gas companies in the Middle East, and telecoms across Africa and Asia.
Written by Catalin Cimpanu, Contributor

The Middle East cyber-espionage scene has gotten a little bit more crowded this month with the discovery of a new hacking group that's been targeting the region since mid-2018.

Tracked by cyber-security firms under names such as Lyceum (Secureworks naming) and Hexane (Dragos naming), this new group has primarily focused on the local energy sector.

In a report published earlier this month, ICS security firm Dragos said that Lyceum (Hexane) had repeatedly targeted oil and gas companies in the Middle East, with "Kuwait as a primary operating region."

But while the bulk of Lyceum attacks were aimed at companies in the energy sector, the group also targeted telecommunication providers in the greater Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa, Dragos said, "potentially as a stepping stone to network-focused man-in-the-middle and related attacks."

But setting aside these rare attacks, the bulk of Lyceum's activity has been focused on companies in the energy sector.

In a report published today and shared with ZDNet, Secureworks said that it detected a spike in Lyceum activity targeting oil and gas companies in May this year, a spike that came after "a sharp uptick in development and testing of their toolkit against a public multi-vendor malware scanning service in February 2019."

Lyceum attacks follow a similar pattern

These attacks followed a simple, yet very effective pattern, Secureworks explained. First, Lyceum members would utilize techniques such as password spraying and brute-force attacks to breach individual email accounts at target organizations.

One successful, in the second stage of these attacks, Lyceum members would use the compromised email accounts to send spear-phishing emails to the victim's colleagues. These emails would deliver malicious Excel files that would attempt to infect other users in the same organization with malware.

The primary targets of these second-stage spear-phishing campaigns would be executives, HR staff, and IT personnel in the same organization.

The Excel files would contain a payload named DanDrop, a VBA macro script that would infect the victim with DanBot, a C# remote access trojan (RAT).

Lyceum hackers would then use the DanBot RAT to download and run additional malware on the victims' systems, most of which were PowerShell scripts with password-dumping, later movement, or keylogging functionality.

Lyceum modus operandi is similar to other Iranian groups

This modus operandi isn't anything new or groundbreaking and has been seen used before by many other hacking groups, both financial and espionage-focused.

Both Dragos and Secureworks have abstained from linking the group to any specific country's cyber-espionage apparatus.

Nevertheless, both Dragos and Secureworks have gone on the record and said that the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) used by Lyceum resemble APT33 and APT34, two cyber-espionage groups that have been historically linked to Iran.

"We're keeping an open mind on attribution," Rafe Pilling, senior security researcher, Secureworks Counter Threat Unit, told ZDNet in an email this week.

"We used the term 'stylistically' similar as we have no specific technical evidence linking LYCEUM to other known threat groups, including those attributed to Iran, such as COBALT TRINITY (aka APT33) or COBALT GYPSY (related to APT34).

"However, LYCEUM use a combination of password spraying, custom malware, DNS tunneling, spearphishing thematics and scripts taken from red teaming frameworks, in a way that is reminiscent of what we have observed from Iranian groups," Pilling said.

Until cyber-security firms gather more evidence to link Lyceum to a specific country, the group's focus is expected to remain on the energy sector, the bread and butter of most cyber-espionage groups targeting the Middle East.

The world's most famous and dangerous APT (state-developed) malware

Editorial standards