Cyberespionage operations by governments with mature cyber capabilities persist regardless of geopolitical events. Espionage typically focuses on broader long-term strategic goals.
Secureworks® Counter Threat Unit™ (CTU) researchers monitor Iranian cyber operations, including the potential for retaliation after a January 2, 2020 U.S. drone strike killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani. Although there was ballistic missile bombardment of U.S. military personnel in Iraq on January 8, no government-directed cyber retaliation has been observed as of this publication.
Despite the lack of retaliatory activity, CTU™ researchers have observed the continuation of several espionage-focused campaigns. A series of spearphishing campaigns that occurred between mid-2019 and mid-January 2020 targeted governmental organizations in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, as well as global intergovernmental organizations and unknown entities in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Most of this activity commenced prior to the U.S. drone strike. Victimology and code similarity between the macros in the analyzed samples and macros documented in open-source reporting suggest that these campaigns were conducted by the COBALT ULSTER threat group (also known as MuddyWater, Seedworm, TEMP.Zagros, and Static Kitten), which is tasked by the Iranian government.
Multiple paths to compromise
In one compromised environment, threat actors conducted multiple rounds of spearphishing with malicious attachments to gain initial access. Some of the email messages contained a link to a compromised website, passing the name of the target organization as a parameter in the URL. These links were likely intended to track when messages were viewed, a tactic known as a web bug.
CTU researchers analyzed two different infection chains. One chain delivered a malicious document via a ZIP archive attached to a spearphishing message. The archive contained a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet (XLS) file with a filename that was thematically aligned with the spearphishing lure.
In historic COBALT ULSTER campaigns, the documents used a government agency, university, or intelligence organization-related theme with blurred content and a prompt to enable macros. In mid-2019, the threat actors adopted a more generic style. In this approach, recipients who open the attachment are presented with a seemingly innocuous document that requests they “enable” the content to view the document (see Figure 1). This action disables security controls on active content in the document and runs the embedded malicious code.
Figure 1. View presented to spearphishing recipients who open the malicious Excel files. (Source: Secureworks)
The embedded VBScript macro is concealed using multiple layers of obfuscation. It drops a copy of the legitimate Microsoft 32-bit wscript.exe binary (MD5: d1ab72db2bedd2f255d35da3da0d4b16) into a non-standard directory path (see Figure 2) and uses it to run additional VBScript code. This binary typically runs from a location such as C:WindowsSysWOW64wscript.exe. The identification of this hash, or command lines that include /E:vbs, running from non-standard directories could indicate a compromise from this campaign.
Figure 2. Examples of unusual locations where wscript.exe binary is dropped. (Source: Secureworks)
An HKU<Security Identifier>SoftwareMicrosoftWindowsCurrentVersionRun registry key is set for persistence. Another executed block of VBScript and PowerShell (e.g., the jjcpquui file shown in Figure 2) downloads a second-stage obfuscated PowerShell downloader (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Truncated extract of obfuscated PowerShell downloader using custom encoding scheme. (Source: Secureworks)
This code downloads additional payloads from an IP address hard-coded in the script (see Figure 4). CTU researchers have observed four different IP addresses. Although many threat groups use multiple layers of obfuscation and multiple stages of activity to deploy payloads, these practices are common in COBALT ULSTER operations.
Figure 4. Deobfuscated version of the obfuscated PowerShell downloader. (Source: Secureworks)
The second infection chain analyzed by CTU researchers also used a spearphishing email to deliver a ZIP archive containing a malicious Excel file. In this case, the Excel file uses an obfuscated macro to drop and execute a previously unobserved remote access trojan (RAT) that CTU researchers refer to as ForeLord. The malicious document uses cmd.exe to execute a batch script (tt.bat) that adds a key to the registry for persistence when the system restarts. In parallel, a PowerShell script uses rundll32.exe to execute the ForeLord malware (Exchange.dll) (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Process tree showing the malicious Excel file creating the ForeLord persistence mechanism. (Source: Secureworks)
The DNS-based command and control (C2) protocol uses DNS_TYPE_TEXT records to transfer data. The ForeLord name reflects one of the DNS responses that the malware looks for as part of the C2 protocol: “lordlordlordlord”. This string is received from the C2 servers and acknowledges reception of the message. The ForeLord malware uses DNS request formats that correspond to one of the patterns shown in Figure 6.
Figure 6. Format of ForeLord DNS requests. (Source: Secureworks)
The use of DNS tunneling means the requests are initially directed to legitimate DNS servers, which relay the requests to malicious nameservers controlled by the threat actors. Pivoting on elements of the C2 protocol, CTU researchers identified 14 additional domains possibly registered by COBALT ULSTER.
Figure 7 provides an overview of the interplay of the two infection chains analyzed by CTU researchers. A variety of additional tools were deployed to compromised systems after the final stage, and telemetry indicates interactive access from the threat actors.
Figure 7. Overview of the two infection chains observed in January 2020 campaigns. (Source: Secureworks)
After gaining initial access to a host, the threat actors dropped several tools to collect credentials, test those credentials on the network, and create a reverse SSL tunnel to provide an additional access channel to the network. These tools included PASS32.dll, PASS64.dll (see Figure 8), PasswordDumper.exe, and a Mimikatz variant named Caller.dll. The Caller.dll command line included Base64-encoded arguments, potentially as an evasion technique to hide the nature of this tool.
Figure 8. Example command line used to run PASS64.dll. (Source: Secureworks)
CredNinja.ps1 (see Figure 9) is an open-source tool that allows penetration testers to quickly test collected credentials or hashes to determine which will work on a targeted Windows domain. The threat actors used a list of valid user accounts from the target domain in conjunction with a weak password list to determine potentially accessible accounts. The password list could be augmented to test credentials captured from credential-dumping tools.
Figure 9. CredNinja ASCII splash screen showing available options. (Source: GitHub)
The open-source Secure Socket Funneling TCP and UDP port forwarding tool forwards data from multiple sockets through a single secure TLS tunnel to a remote computer. This forwarding provides the threat actor with an additional remote access mechanism. The -F option runs a SOCKS proxy on the local host, which is accessible from the server, and -p defines the remote port to use when connecting to the server (see Figure 10). It is possible that this mechanism was used to allow remote access to the compromised host via Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP).
Figure 10. Command line used to run ssf.exe. (Source: Secureworks)
Although Iran has not launched a cyber retaliation for Soleimani’s death as of this publication, CTU researchers acknowledge that planning and coordinating for a response takes time. Iran has destructive and disruptive capabilities that it has historically employed for retaliatory purposes against organizations. In some cases, these responses materialized several months after provocations toward Iran occurred. However, Iran’s cyberespionage operations continue.
From a threat management and risk assessment perspective, CTU researchers advise organizations not to conflate ongoing espionage operations with a retaliatory response. However, continually leveraging threat intelligence to assess and improve controls will help network defenders secure their environments against malicious activity regardless of intent.
Many Iranian intrusions observed by CTU researchers between 2018 and early 2020 began with the collection of valid credentials in the victim’s environment via social engineering, phishing, password spraying, brute-force attacks, and exploitation of publicly available systems. Organizations concerned about threats from Iran should review prevention, detection, and response procedures:
- Apply security updates to all systems, particularly those that are Internet-facing.
- Protect user credentials within the environment through periodic user awareness training and multi-factor authentication (MFA). Employ MFA for remote access solutions and web-based email access, including Office365.
- As most of the observed Iranian intrusions involved malware or abuse of native system tools, employ endpoint detection technology that detects those types of activity.
- Establish and test procedures for responding to denial of service activity. If appropriate, a distributed denial of service mitigation service provider can ensure continuity of Internet-facing services.
To mitigate exposure to this malware, CTU researchers recommend that organizations use available controls to review and restrict access using the indicators listed in Table 1. The domains and URLs may contain malicious content, so consider the risks before opening them in a browser.
|lalindustries.com||Domain name||Compromised website hosting COBALT ULSTER C2 infrastructure|
|linkupdate.org||Domain name||Compromised website hosting COBALT ULSTER C2 infrastructure|
|cfm.com.pk||Domain name||Compromised website hosting COBALT ULSTER C2 infrastructure|
|graphixo.net||Domain name||Compromised website hosting COBALT ULSTER C2 infrastructure|
|ksahosting.net||Domain name||Compromised website hosting COBALT ULSTER C2 infrastructure|
|assignmenthelptoday.com||Domain name||Compromised website hosting COBALT ULSTER C2 infrastructure|
|ampacindustries.com||Domain name||Compromised website hosting COBALT ULSTER C2 infrastructure|
|http://lalindustries.com/wp-content/upgrade/editor.php?ac=1&n=||URL||Compromised website hosting COBALT ULSTER C2 infrastructure|
|http://linkupdate.org/js/js.php?ac=1&n=||URL||Compromised website hosting COBALT ULSTER C2 infrastructure|
|http://cfm.com.pk/wp-includes/utf8.php?ac=1&n=||URL||Compromised website hosting COBALT ULSTER C2 infrastructure|
|http://advanceorthocenter.com/wp-includes/editor.php?ac=1&n=||URL||Compromised website hosting COBALT ULSTER C2 infrastructure|
|http://graphixo.net/wp-includes/utf8.php?ac=1&n=||URL||Compromised website hosting COBALT ULSTER C2 infrastructure|
|http://ksahosting.net/wp-includes/utf8.php||URL||Compromised website hosting COBALT ULSTER C2 infrastructure|
|https://assignmenthelptoday.com/wp-includes/utf8.php||URL||Compromised website hosting COBALT ULSTER C2 infrastructure|
|outlook-accounts.tk||Domain name||Suspected ForeLord C2 infrastructure linked via bing-search.ml|
|outlook-accounts.ml||Domain name||Suspected ForeLord C2 infrastructure linked via bing-search.ml|
|officex64.ml||Domain name||Suspected ForeLord C2 infrastructure linked via bing-search.ml|
|windows-patch.tk||Domain name||Suspected ForeLord C2 infrastructure linked via bing-search.ml|
|windows-patch.ml||Domain name||Suspected ForeLord C2 infrastructure linked via bing-search.ml|
|windowscortana.tk||Domain name||Suspected ForeLord C2 infrastructure linked via bing-search.ml|
|msdn-social.tk||Domain name||Suspected ForeLord C2 infrastructure linked via bing-search.ml|
|msdn-social.ml||Domain name||Suspected ForeLord C2 infrastructure linked via bing-search.ml|
|spacex.gq||Domain name||Suspected ForeLord C2 infrastructure linked via bing-search.ml|
|spacex.cf||Domain name||Suspected ForeLord C2 infrastructure linked via bing-search.ml|
|googlecloud.gq||Domain name||Suspected ForeLord C2 infrastructure linked via bing-search.ml|
|googlecloud.cf||Domain name||Suspected ForeLord C2 infrastructure linked via bing-search.ml|
|device-update.tk||Domain name||Suspected ForeLord C2 infrastructure linked via bing-search.ml|
|bing-search.ml||Domain name||Suspected ForeLord C2 infrastructure linked via bing-search.ml|
Table 1. Indicators for this threat.