A hacking group is conducting cyberespionage against targets in the Middle East by duping politicians, activists and staff at NGOs into clicking links to authentic-looking but fake versions of high-profile websites in the region, and then infecting them with malware.
The operation -- dubbed 'Moonlight' by cybersecurity researchers, after the name the attackers chose for one of their command-and-control domains -- has generated over two hundred samples of malware over the past two years and targets individuals via their private email accounts instead of their corporate ones, to increase the chances of a successful attack.
The attacks, which are themed around Middle Eastern political issues such as the war in Syria or the conflict in Palestine, have been unearthed by cybersecurity researchers at Vectra Networks, who say the tools and targets are reminiscent of the Gaza Hacker Team, a group of hacktivists said to be aligned with Hamas, the Palestinian militant Islamic group. The attacks are purely centred on Middle Eastern targets, with the text crafted in Arabic.
Moonlight typically delivers an obfuscated version of the widely available H-Worm, a malicious Visual Basic Script-based remote access Trojan. It isn't sophisticated, but the effort the attackers put into their phishing attacks means that it's effective.
"They put effort into lovingly crafting the emails, the websites, the documents they've created, putting a fair amount of effort and energy into it. But beyond that the underlying tech is off the shelf," says Oliver Tavakoli, CTO at Vectra Networks, emphasising how the attackers don't need sophisticated hacking skills.
"It teaches you about the low degree of skill required to actually pull something like this off," he adds.
As with other phishing schemes, those behind Moonlight are attempting to entice their target to click on malicious documents, which claim to contain information about issues and events in the Middle East, such as Hamas, Gaza, Syria, Egypt and other topics relevant to audiences in the Arab world.
The lure is deployed as an EXE file, but rather than doing nothing but install malware when clicked on, Moonlight presents the victim with a relevant decoy, therefore avoiding suspicion that the document may be malicious.
Another method the attackers use to deploy malware is via malicious links that lead to fake but convincing versions of authentic Middle Eastern media organisations' websites. Typically deploying the link via a shortened URL, the user is invited to click through to a news article based on current events in the Middle East. While it looks like the real deal, users will find themselves infected with malware.
The end result in each of these two attacks is that the victim -- of which there have been hundreds -- becomes infected with a Trojan that's most likely used to conduct espionage. But rather than infecting corporate environments, it's the personal email addresses and therefore home networks of victims which have been targeted, because they represent more vulnerable targets -- and that's reflected in unsophisticated nature of the malware itself.
"The obscuring that they did wasn't of network communications, but of the actual exploit and malware they delivered. That leads me to believe that it's not really targeted at employees of companies, but more at end users -- politicians using their private emails or private machines, activists in the Middle East and NGOs," says Tavakoli.
While the endgame of Moonlight and who is ultimately pulling the strings remains unknown, the group behind it is still active and still targeting individuals interested in political issues in the Middle East.
While those outside the Middle East aren't likely to be targeted by Moonlight, it serves as a reminder that a well-crafted phishing attack can be almost indistinguishable from a real email. Nonetheless, there are still ways that targeted users and organisations can fight back.
Read more on cyberespionage
- Cybercrime and cyberwar: A spotter's guide to the groups that are out to get you
- This hush-hush hacker group has been quietly spying since 2011
- CYBERWAR: The smart person's guide [TechRepublic]
- How hackers used this Trojan malware to spy on a territorial dispute
- Russian hackers target US athlete information, anti-doping agency says [CNET]