Researchers find link between cyber espionage group and Saudi hacking campaign

Security researchers are closely investigating a spate of newly discovered data breaches in the Middle East, which in each case involved the deployment of an advanced, disk-wiping malware variant, in an effort to attribute the attacker.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - Feb. 2007 - View from top of Kingdom Tower / Photo by Alan Light - Flickr CC 2.0

Security researchers are closely investigating a spate of newly discovered data breaches in the Middle East, in which each case involved the deployment of an advanced, disk-wiping malware variant.

Reports from Symantec suggest that a series of recent intrusions share some similarities with an infamous 2012 hacking operation that disrupted multiple Saudi energy companies.

The mysterious perpetrators behind the destructive 2012 cyberattacks were dubbed Shamoon, a loosely defined hacking group with advanced capabilities. The malware once used by the enigmatic group — W32.Disttrack and W32.Disttrack.B — first showed up in the 2012 incident but was then again found by digital forensic experts as recently as Nov. 2016.

When successfully installed, Disttrack can corrupt files and overwrite a system’s master boot record, rendering the device unusable. “Threats with such destructive payloads are unusual and are not typical of targeted attacks,” security researchers wrote in a blog post shortly after the originally Saudi energy breach.


On Monday, Symantec published what it believes are ties between Shamoon and another cyber espionage group, named Greenbug.

Greenbug relies on a unique, custom information-stealing remote access trojan, or RAT, known as Trojan.Ismdoor, in addition to a suite of commoditized credentials stealing hacking tools.

Greenbug tends to use phishing emails to infect victims. The group typically targets Middle Eastern aviation, government, investment and education organizations, Symantec’s research team said. Between June and November 2016, Trojan.Ismdoor was used against multiple organizations based in the Middle East.

“The use and purpose [of Trojan.Ismdoor] do fit that of malware used by nation state attackers. Additionally, the information gathering conducted once the attacker is on the network also supports the types of operations seen by nation state attackers,” Symantec senior threat intelligence analyst Jon DiMaggio told CyberScoop.

Researchers say there is at least one case in which the two hacking groups — Shamoon and Greenbug — may have been simultaneously active inside a victim’s computer network.


One of the longstanding questions about Shamoon has been how the group deploys its signature disttrack malware because the virus requires previously stolen credentials to successfully configure and launch on a victim’s network. In this context, it is possible that Greenbug — acting as the espionage arm for Shamoon — collects the necessary information needed to conduct the disk-wiping attack.

“The presence of Greenbug within an organization prior to the destructive attack involving W32.Disttrack.B provides only a tentative connection to Shamoon,” Symantec’s blog post reads.

“It is possible that Greenbug played a role in some of the previously discussed campaigns against the middle east,” explained DiMaggio, “[and] in light of our recent findings we are reviewing previous attacks [but] have not yet identified enough of a ‘tie’ to comfortably state that the activity is [all] from one attacker. As we obtain new information and evidence we will assess this and previous activity with more certainty.”

Chris Bing

Written by Chris Bing

Christopher J. Bing is a cybersecurity reporter for CyberScoop. He has written about security, technology and policy for the American City Business Journals, DC Inno, International Policy Digest and The Daily Caller. Chris became interested in journalism as a result of growing up in Venezuela and watching the country shift from a democracy to a dictatorship between 1991 and 2009. Chris is an alumnus of St. Marys College of Maryland, a small liberal arts school based in Southern Maryland. He's a fan of Premier League football, authentic Laotian food and his dog, Sam.

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