Multiple Groups Cooperated in Shamoon Attacks: Symantec

The recent attacks involving the notorious disk-wiping malware Shamoon, aka Disttrack, may have been carried out by multiple groups working together under the command of a single entity, Symantec said on Monday.

A total of three Shamoon 2 attack waves were observed recently, including two in November 2016 and one on January 23. The attacks, believed by many to be the work of Iran, targeted organizations in the Persian Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia.

Experts have identified connections between apparently different threat groups and the Shamoon attacks. First, Symantec reported that an actor tracked by the company as Greenbug may have helped obtain credentials used in the Shamoon operation.

Later, Palo Alto Networks published a report on Magic Hound, a campaign targeted at energy, government and technology sector organizations that are located or have an interest in Saudi Arabia. The operation involved domains and a RAT linked by IBM to Shamoon attacks.

Researchers also found connections between the Magic Hound attacks and two other Iran-linked advanced persistent threat (APT) actors: Charming Kitten (Newscaster) and Rocket Kitten. Symantec tracks the group behind Magic Hound as Timberworm, and SecureWorks has named it COBALT GYPSY.

Symantec said Timberworm apparently facilitated the January 2017 Shamoon attacks. The group, similar to Greenbug, gained access to the targeted organizations’ systems weeks or months before Shamoon was deployed in order to conduct reconnaissance, harvest credentials and establish persistent remote access.

Timberworm used spear-phishing emails and weaponized documents to gain a foothold in each organization’s network. The attacker then leveraged custom malware, hacking tools and legitimate sysadmin applications to achieve its goals. The use of legitimate tools can help avoid detection and makes attribution more difficult.

Both Greenbug and Timberworm penetrated the systems of many organizations – not only in Saudi Arabia – but the Shamoon worm was only deployed against specific targets.

“Timberworm appears to be a much larger operation, infiltrating a much broader range of organizations beyond those affected by the recent Shamoon attacks. Similarly, Greenbug targeted a range of organizations in the Middle East beyond those affected by Shamoon, including companies in the aviation, energy, government, investment, and education sectors,” said Symantec researchers.

“While both groups leveraged two distinct toolsets, their targets, tactics, and procedures align very well and in close proximity to the coordinated wiping events,” they added.

The evidence suggests that the groups worked together and their activities may have been orchestrated by a single entity, experts said.

Related: Iranian Group Delivers Malware via Fake Oxford University Sites

Related: Iran-Linked Attackers Target Government Organizations

Related: “Gaza Cybergang” Attacks Attributed to Hamas

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Eduard Kovacs is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.

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