McAfee has linked a series of cyber-attacks in Saudi Arabia to a common malicious actor rather than to individual cyber gangs in the region. McAfee Strategic Intelligence researchers, working closely with McAfee’s Advanced Programs Group, have released evidence that a series of cyber-attacks targeting the Persian Gulf and, specifically, Saudia Arabia between 2012 and the present are the work of hacker groups supported and coordinated by a common malicious actor, and not the random efforts of a variety of individual cyber gangs in the region.
The latest Shamoon campaigns go beyond a few targets in energy, to many in other critical sectors that run Saudi Arabia. Whereas earlier Shamoon campaigns targeted a relatively small number of energy sector organizations to disrupt the operations of the region’s critical industry, the new attacks are focused on a greater number of organizations in the energy, government, financial services and critical infrastructure sectors of Saudi Arabia to disrupt that entire country.
The large-scale, sophisticated, coordinated nature of the latest campaigns suggest the activity of a nation-state actor. Taken together, this new series of Shamoon cyber espionage campaigns are significantly larger, well-planned, well-resourced, and coordinated at a level beyond the limited capacity of disparate independent hacker gangs.
What did McAfee find?
McAfee’s researchers surveyed the evolution of Shamoon-based attacks, from the 2012 attacks on the Persian Gulf energy sector, to the latest campaigns in Saudia Arabia in 2016 and 2017. McAfee found commonalities between the Shamoon malware samples, tactics and even infrastructure used in these attacks:
- The new attacks used 90% of the original code from the 2012 attacks
- The macro code used in the latest spear-phishing campaign was also used in the attacks launched by Rocket Kitten in Spring 2016
- Some of the new attacks also used some of the same infrastructure previously used by the Oil-RIG campaign in late 2015.
Why is this different from previous Shamoon discoveries and revelations?
Past research has examined Shamoon attacks in depth, but haven’t brought forward evidence of a substantial overlap in code, tactics and infrastructure to the extent McAfee has today. McAfee’s Advanced Programs Group made extensive contributions to the actor and adversary part of this research.
How do these attacks work?
Step 1. Once a target is identified, the attackers send spear-phishing emails to individuals working within the organization. The recipients of these messages are chosen carefully, with the assumption that they will enable network access to the most sensitive information and systems in the organization.
Step 2. The email recipient is lured into clicking on a link within the email or opening a Microsoft Office file embedded with macros that allow the attackers to create backdoor access to the organizations.
Step 3. The attackers conduct reconnaissance across the network to identify valuable information and critical systems.
Step 4. Once the reconnaissance is complete, the attackers weaponize the attack and wipe the hard drives of the master boot records (MBRs). In the 2016 to present case, the attackers launched multiple simultaneous waves of attacks:
- Attack Wave 1: Wiped systems on November 17, 2016, at 20:45 Saudi time.
- Attack Wave 2: Wiped systems on November 29, 2016, at 01:30 Saudi time.
- Attack Wave 3: Began January 23, 2017, and ongoing, with similar samples and methods and TTPs as in Waves 1 and 2
What was the impact of these attacks?
In 2012, the actors moved quickly in and out of the victim’s network, inflicting system-wipe damage and then disappearing. In 2016, the actors penetrated networks and established remote control to gather intelligence for future planned wiping attacks. Unless thwarted, the attackers could have exfiltrated any data of value to them, and then erased the systems’ data and made them unable to boot up and operate.
What does this discovery mean?
These findings are the latest evidence of rogue state or stateless actors developing increasingly sophisticated and powerful cyberwarfare and cyber espionage capabilities to project geopolitical and strategic power that would otherwise be beyond their reach.
Such actors may seek to acquire cyber capabilities from the Black Market in the same way North Korea looked to Pakistan’s Abdul Qadeer Khan to acquire nuclear technologies. They may choose to collaborate with other aspiring actors as Iran and North Korea have in the development of ballistic missiles.
What we know for certain is that cyber tools, tactics, knowledge, talent and infrastructure are similarly available to actors wishing to acquire them.