Iran-Linked Seedworm APT target orgs in the Middle East

Pierluigi Paganini October 23, 2020

The Iran-linked cyber espionage group tracked as Seedworm started using a new downloader and is conducting destructive attacks.

The Iran-linked cyber-espionage group Seedworm (aka MuddyWater MERCURY, and Static Kitten) was observed using a new downloader in a new wave of attacks. Security experts pointed out that the threat actor started conducting destructive attacks.

Also referred to as MuddyWater, MERCURY, and Static Kitten, the cyber-espionage group was initially analyzed in 2017.

The first MuddyWater campaign was observed in late 2017, when researchers from Palo Alto Networks were investigating a mysterious wave of attacks in the Middle East.

The experts called the campaign ‘MuddyWater’ due to the confusion in attributing these attacks that took place between February and October 2017 targeting entities in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Georgia, India, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United States to date.

In September 2018, experts from Symantec found evidence of Seedworm and the espionage group APT28 on a computer in the Brazil-based embassy of an oil-producing nation. 

Earlier this month, the Iranian APT group was observed actively targeting the Zerologon flaw.

According to security firm ClearSky and Symantec, Seedworm recently started using a new downloader dubbed PowGoop. Experts noticed that the threat actors used the downloader to deliver the Thanos ransomware in an attack aimed at an organization in the Middle East.

“PowGoop is a loader that was exposed in a PaloAlto report and later used in Operation Quicksand. PowGoop is comprised of a DLL Loader and a PowerShell-based downloader.” reads the report published by ClearSky. “The malicious file impersonates a legitimate goopdate.dll file that is signed as a Google Update executable”

The experts observed the attacks between July 6 and July 9, 2020, the hackers employed a strain of ransomware that was able to evade security tools and that implemented a destructive feature by overwriting the MBR.

Experts pointed out that the primary objectives of previous MuddyWater campaigns were espionage and cyber espionage, but in the latest campaign, tracked as ‘Operation Quicksand’ threat actors used for the first time the destructive malware in attacks on prominent organizations in Israel and in other countries around the world.

“We assess that the group is attempting to employ destructive attacks (the likes of the NotPetya attack from 2017), via a disguised as ransomware attacks” continnues the report.

“Although we didn’t see execution of the destruction in the wild, due to the presence of the destructive capabilities, the attribution to nation-state sponsored threat actor, and the realization of this vector in the past, a destructive purpose is more likely than a ransomware that is being deployed for financial goals.”

Another report published by Symantec connected the dots between MuddyWater and the PowGoopdownlaoder.

“In several recent Seedworm attacks, PowGoop was used on computers that were also infected with known Seedworm malware (Backdoor.Mori). In addition to this, activity involving Seedworm’s Powerstats (aka Powermud) backdoor appears to have been superseded by DLL side-loading of PowGoop.” reads the report published by Symantec.

“Additionally, during PowGoop activity, we also observed the attackers downloading tools and some unknown content from GitHub repos, similar to what has been reported on Seedworm‘s Powerstats in the past.”

Symantec researchers noticed that on the same machine where Seedworm was active, the attackers deployed the PowGoop downloader which is known to be a malware that is part of Seedworm’s arsenal.

PowGoop appears to have been employed in attacks aimed at governments, education, oil and gas, real estate, technology, and telecoms organizations in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Iraq, Israel, Georgia, Turkey, and Vietnam.

Symantec’s analysis revealed that the PowGoop was masquerading as a Google tool and noticed the use of SSF and Chisel.

Experts speculate the PowGoop downloader might be an evolution of Powerstats tool employed by MuddyWater in previous attacks.

“Symantec has not found any evidence of a wiper or ransomware on computers infected with PowGoop.”Symantec concludes. “This suggests that either the simultaneous presence of PowGoop and Thanos in one attack was a coincidence or, if the two are linked, that PowGoop is not used exclusively to deliver Thanos,”

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Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – hacking, Seedworm)

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