Clearsky detected Gholee malware – The Israel-Gaza Conflict Takes to the Cyber-Arena

Pierluigi Paganini September 09, 2014

Experts at Clearsky detected the Gholee virus which was likely developed by highly qualified factors, which may even be related to Israel’s long-time nemesis Iran.

Experts from Clearsky, an Israeli cyber-security company, detected an “operation protective edge” themed spear phishing attack, carried out via emails containing a malicious excel file. Once opened and its VBA code executed, the file infected the victim’s computer. The file is recognized as malicious by only one antivirus engine. The researchers believe that the virus was developed by highly qualified factors, which may even be related to Israel’s long-time nemesis Iran.

“Our investigation of the Gholee malware started following a detection of a suspicious file that was sent in an email to an undisclosed recipient. The file name was ‘Operation Protective Edge.xlsb’ (MD5: d0c3f4c9896d41a7c42737134ffb4c2e).” states Omri Moyal, the company’s CTO.

The Gholee malware is sent as a file attached to an email, titled ‘Operation Protective Edge.xlsb’ (MD5: d0c3f4c9896d41a7c42737134ffb4c2e). Upon opening the file, a message is displayed, saying: ““Due to security considerations I consciously hid the Informations. It will be visible for you by enabling content above.”

Gholee malware 1


This is actually a social engineering tactic meant to lure the victim into enabling Macro content. If enabled, the message disappears, and the following information is presented to the victim (it is possible that the unreadable characters in the screenshot below are the result of an encoding error in our lab environment, and that the victim would see different, readable content):


Gholee Item 2.docx


The file was uploaded to Virus Total the first time on 10 August 2014, from Israel. At that time it was not detected as malicious by any of the 52 tested antivirus engines. Nine days later, it was uploaded again to Virus total, again from Israel. This time it was detected as malicious only by Kaspersky, as Trojan-Dropper.MSExcel.Agent.ce.

In order to avoid detection by protection measures such as computer antivirus and intrusion detection systems, ASCII characters codes are used instead of actual characters. The ASCII codes are converted to strings as they are concatenated into a single variable within a function

Tens of these functions then concatenated, creating a single PE file. Finally, the file is saved to{GUIDE}.dll (MD5: 48573a150562c57742230583456b4c02) and the function ShellExecte  is used to run it under cmd.exe /C and Rundll32  This is in order to hide the process.

The Dll file is obfuscated and includes various mechanism to hide from Debuggers such as Ollydbg and IDA and from Sandbox software such as Cuckoo and Anubis.

Analysis of the file brought up an interesting entry point called “gholee“.

Gholee Item 3


A quick Facebook search for that name and Iran discovered Gholee is a popular Iranian singer:

“Based on our analysis, we believe the threat actor behind this malware is a high level professional” says Omri.

When run, the DLL file is communicating with a Kuwait based IP address:, owned by German company iABG Mbh, which provides satellite communication services.

Gholee Item 4



The malware opens an SSL connection over port 443 using a digital certificate that expired in 2010. The certificate was issued for security company Core Security, the creators of the offensive suite Core Impact, for the address *

Gholee Item 5

It was issued by Thawte certificate authority.

​Certificate Fingerprint MD5: 9C 80 C2 47 40 6D 6C ED FC E0 08 AE EF D9 98 90

Using a proxy and SSL stripping, the following communication pattern over HTTP can be seen:

GET                        /index.php?c=Ud7atknq&r=17117d        HTTP/1.1
POST                     /index.php?c=Ud7atknq&r=1710b2        HTTP/1.1

Searching for specific strings from the malicious file, the company’s experts found another file believed  to be related to this campaign. The file name is “svchost 67.exe” (MD5: 916be1b609ed3dc80e5039a1d8102e82 ) and it was uploaded to Virus Total[5] on 2 June 2014, more than two months earlier than “Operation Protective Edge.xlsb”. It was uploaded twice from Latvia – potentially to test the malware’s detection rate.

svchost 67.exe” communicated with, which is on the same /26 netblock as the address “Operation Protective Edge.xlsb” communicates with.

By using GPO to disable macro code from running, infection by this malware may be avoided.  Alternatively, files containing macro code should be blocked at the email gateway or by an anti-spam solution.

Logs and proxy servers should be checked for communication with the IP addresses with which the malware communicates: 

If you think you got infected, check in the system root folder for a file called NTUSER.DAT.{$GUID}.dll . for example:


The following Yara rule may be used to detect the gholee malware:

rule gholee

author = “”
date = “2014/08″
maltype = “Remote Access Trojan”
filetype = “dll
$a = “sandbox_avg10_vc9_SP1_2011″
$b = “gholee
all of them
(Security Affairs –  Gholee malware, spear phishing)

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