Pro-Assad hackers used Skype to target opposition fighters

Possible Hezbollah connection to malware attacks

Skype was hijacked as a simple cyberweapon to target the enemies of Syria's President Assad, FireEye has said.

The firm's new report uncovered evidence that in 2013 opposition forces were on the receiving end of a simple Skype-led cyberattack that laid bare past battle plans, lists of fighters, weapons consignments and even details of sympathetic refugees.

Normally, cyberattacks are assumed to about gaining an edge to aid long-term strategic goals but these attacks would have given the attackers actionable intelligence on the battle configuration of forces opposing the Syrian Army in some areas of the country.

The campaign, which ran across 2013, was based on Remote Access Trojan (RAT) malware that infected targets set up using bogus but appealing female Skype avatars. Chat conversations would winkle out the devices being used by opposition fighters, their names, what they looked like, as well as directing them to fake opposition sites hosting malware. Photographs of women would be sent in return which when opened would initiate infection by the DarkComet RAT.

It does appear to have been that easy.

The stolen data amounted to 7.7GB, comprising 12,356 contacts, over 240,000 messages, 64 Skype account databases, and 31,107 conversations held on Skype itself.

If gaining access to that volume of data siunds unexpected, the campaign's success was helped by the opposition's limited infrastructure in which numerous individuals would use the same PCs to communicate via satellite, FireEye said.

Most seriously, the firm uncovered evidence that the attackers had gained advance knowledge of a meticulously-planned military offensive against Khirbet Ghazaleh near Deraa sometime between November 2013 and January 2014 involving 800 men, tanks and other assets.

From FireEye's slightly convoluted account it appears this data wasn't stolen until after the attack had occurred but it remains possible that other attacks were revealed in advance.

The technique of targeting opposition fighters using Skype and RAT malware has been well documented from early 2012 onwards and is not a revelation. However, the success and possible wider effects of this disarmingly simple technique is more of a jolt.

"In the course of our threat research, we found the activity focused on the Syrian opposition that shows another innovative way threat groups have found to gain the advantage they seek," said FireEye senior threat intelligence researcher, Nart Villeneuve.

"While we cannot positively identify who is behind these attacks, we know that they used social media to infiltrate victims' machines and steal military information that would provide an advantage to President Assad's forces on the battlefield."

The analysis goes some way to explaining why Assad's once-crumbling army has performed beyond expectations since the early days of the insurgency in 2011, holding its opponents at way with apparent ease.

On that topic, the issue of who was behind the cyberattack is intriguing. FireEye found numerous references to and knowledge of neighbouring Lebanon. This implies that the group is connected to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah paramilitary organisation that provided men and weapons to help stabilise Assad's regime in its darkest hour.

The well-known Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), which has carried out more public cyberattacks on Western targets, is rumoured to be controlled by foreign-based activists, similarly trained and connected to Iran.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags skypeCOMETsecurityFireEye

More about FireEyeSkype

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by John E Dunn

Latest Videos

  • 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

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts