Researchers uncover 'Mahdi' malware targeting Iran and Israel

Middle-Eastern intelligence service suspected

Security companies Seculert and Kaspersky Lab have found what they suspect is yet another cyber-weapon targeting Middle-Eastern countries.

Dubbed 'Mahdi', the Trojan campaign is not a weapon on the scale of the highly-unusual Flame malware discovered in May, and there is some evidence to suggest that it is not the work of the US or its allies.

It is undoubtedly an oddity. After collaborating to sinkhole the malware's command and control servers, the two vendors found that the malware's victims were predominantly business people working on infrastructure projects n Iran and Israel.

Operating over the last eight months, engineering students, Israeli financial institutions and government agencies with a connection to the region were also on the target list. There was more.

"Interestingly, our joint analysis uncovered a lot of Persian [Farsi] strings littered throughout the malware and the C&C tools, which is unusual to see in malicious code. The attackers were no doubt fluent in this language," said Seculert's CTO, Aviv Raff.

In total, 387 infected systems were in Iran, 64 in Israel, 14 in Afghanistan, 6 in the UAE, and 4 in Saudi Arabia.

The purpose was simply to steal documents, monitor emails and IM, record audio and images from infected PCs and keylog like crazy, the standard gamut of today's successful Trojan.

Kaspersky described Mahdi as being crude by cyber-malware standards right down to the odd way that it dropped documents on infected machines with a religious and political theme.

Despite its simplicity, Mahdi appears to have worked well hoovering up gigabytes of data from its victims for dispatch to remote servers.

The vendors don't speculate but most likely culprits are a state in the region or a political group with the same interests. One of the servers used to collect data was located in Iran, another in Canada.

The circumstantial evidence to support this hypothesis is the malware's interest in monitoring specific social media applications, including Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, ICQ, Skype, Google+, and Facebook, the very applications Middle-Eastern intelligence agencies routinely watch for dissident activity. Alternatively, it could be an unusual freelance attack by a small group.

"While the malware and infrastructure is very basic compared to other similar projects, the Madi attackers have been able to conduct a sustained surveillance operation against high-profile victims," said Kaspersky Lab's senior malware researcher, Nicolas Brulez.

"Perhaps the amateurish and rudimentary approach helped the operation fly under the radar and evade detection."

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by John E Dunn

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place