APT28 targets key networks in Europe with HeadLace malware

Pierluigi Paganini June 03, 2024

Russia-linked APT28 used the HeadLace malware and credential-harvesting web pages in attacks against networks across Europe.

Researchers at Insikt Group observed Russian GRU’s unit APT28 targeting networks across Europe with information-stealer Headlace and credential-harvesting web pages. The experts observed the APT deploying Headlace in three distinct phases from April to December 2023, respectively, using phishing, compromised internet services, and living off the land binaries. The credential harvesting pages were designed to target Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence, European transportation infrastructures, and an Azerbaijani think tank. The credential harvesting pages created by the group can defeat two-factor authentication and CAPTCHA challenges by relaying requests between legitimate services and compromised Ubiquiti routers.

In some attackers, threat actors created specially-crafted web pages on Mocky that interact with a Python script running on compromised Ubiquiti routers to exfiltrate the provided credentials.

The compromise of networks associated with Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence and European railway systems could allow attackers to gather intelligence to influence battlefield tactics and broader military strategies. Additionally, their interest in the Azerbaijan Center for Economic and Social Development indicates a potential agenda to understand and possibly influence regional policies.

Insikt Group speculates the operation is aimed at influencing regional and military dynamics.

The APT28 group (aka Fancy BearPawn StormSofacy GroupSednit, BlueDelta, and STRONTIUM) has been active since at least 2007 and it has targeted governments, militaries, and security organizations worldwide. The group was involved also in the string of attacks that targeted 2016 Presidential election.

The group operates out of military unity 26165 of the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) 85th Main Special Service Center (GTsSS).

The attack chain used in the attacks detailed by Insikt Group has seven distinct infrastructure stages to filter out sandboxes, incompatible operating systems, and non-targeted countries. Victims who failed these checks downloaded a benign file and were redirected to Microsoft’s web portal, msn.com. Those who passed the checks downloaded a malicious Windows BAT script, which connected to a free API service to execute successive shell commands.


In December 2023, researchers from Proofpoint and IBM detailed a new wave of APT spear-phishing attacks relying on multiple lure content to deliver Headlace malware. The campaigns targeted at least thirteen separate nations.

“Upon analyzing Headlace geofencing scripts and countries targeted by credential harvesting campaigns from 2022 onwards, Insikt Group identified that thirteen separate countries were targeted by BlueDelta. As expected, Ukraine topped the list, accounting for 40% of the activity.” reads the report published by the Insikt Group. “Türkiye might seem like an unexpected target with 10%, but it’s important to note that it was singled out only by Headlace geofencing, unlike Ukraine, Poland, and Azerbaijan, which were targeted through both Headlace geofencing and credential harvesting.”

Researchers call on organizations within government, military, defense, and related sectors, to bolster cybersecurity measures: prioritizing the detection of sophisticated phishing attempts, restricting access to non-essential internet services, and enhancing surveillance of critical network infrastructure

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Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – hacking, Russia)

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