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Researchers Report Details On Arabic-Speaking Cyberespionage Gang

Trend Micro and Kaspersky researchers warn of Middle Eastern attack campaigns focused on "perceived enemies of Islam."

Researchers from Trend Micro and Kaspersky Lab this week pulled the covers off research on a new Arabic-speaking cyber attack gang that has so far stolen more than 1 million files and is running ongoing malware campaigns on targets in more than 50 countries. Dubbed Operation Arid Viper, the campaign specifically detailed by Trend researchers in a report yesterday focuses on high-value Israeli targets, but this Desert Falcon group, as Kaspersky calls it, has gone after more than 3,000 victims in over 50 countries.

Dmitry Bestuzhev, head of Kaspersky Lab's global research analysis team for Latin America, told Dark Reading at Kaspersky's Security Analyst Summit that Desert Falcon is not a pure nation-state actor, but “more like a movement behind it.” This mirrors the complexity of the Middle East, he says, explaining that the targets included individuals at industrial, energy, religious, financial, and educational institutions, along with prominent activists and reporters.

“They are looking for confidential information,” he says, explaining that the group uses manual hacking techniques and spies on physical sites to find people associated with physical security at facilities. "They want to make sure they are stealing only secrets, not trash, and they don’t want to be discovered.”

According to Trend, Arid Viper, in particular, tended to depend on spear-phishing emails with malware disguised as a pornographic video in "smash-and-grab" attacks that have been seen since about 2013. Trend researchers say Arid Viper seems to have connections to a separate attack campaign called Advtravel that is less targeted and can be traced back to Egypt.

"Although the malware involved in operation Advtravel is different from that of Operation Arid Viper, both operations still have a few similarities, such as sharing the same server and having the domains used in Advtravel registered with the same emails as the Operation Arid Viper," Trend researchers wrote. "Notably, the same server and site registration details suggest the existence of a supra-organization, a forum or an influential sponsor could be providing various hacking groups with the means to pursue their ends."

Like Kaspersky, Trend suggests that there may be some type of "overarching" espionage organization that is supporting Middle Eastern hackers attack "perceived enemies of Islam." Bestuzhev suggests the discovery of Desert Falcon is a historical find and he notes that researchers be advised that this group appears to develop their tools from scratch.

(Kelly Jackson Higgins contributed to this article)

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