Iran-Backed Charming Kitten APT Eyes Kinetic Ops, Kidnapping

The not-so-charming APT's intelligence-gathering initiatives are likely being used by the Iranian state to target kidnapping victims.

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Source: Eric Gevaert via Alamy Stock Photo

State-sponsored advanced persistent threat (APT) Charming Kitten (aka TA453), which is purportedly linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has updated its phishing techniques, and is using malware and more confrontational lures, possibly in service to kidnapping operations.

Since 2020, Proofpoint researchers have observed variations in phishing activity by the APT (which also overlaps with the groups Phosphorous and APT42), with the group employing new methods and targeting different targets than in the past. In the latest campaigns, researchers have observed more aggressive activity, which could be used to support attempted "kinetic operations" from the IRGC, including murder for hire and kidnapping, researchers said.

"TA453, like its fellow advanced persistent threat actors engaged in espionage, is in a constant state of flux regarding its tools, tactics, techniques, and targeting," a Proofpoint report out this week concluded. "Adjusting its approaches, likely in response to ever-changing and expanding priorities, the outlier campaigns are likely to continue and reflect IRGC intelligence-collection requirements, including possible support for hostile, and even kinetic, operations."

Hacking E-Mail Accounts

In 2021, Proofpoint documented TA453 spoofing two scholars at the University of London to try and gain access to email inboxes belonging to journalists, think tank personnel, academics, and others. In August, Google researchers said the hacking team had started employing a data-theft tool targeting Gmail, Yahoo, and Microsoft Outlook accounts using previously acquired credentials. Intelligence gathered from email conversations could be used for location tracking and more. 

One campaign that researchers observed against a former member of the Israeli military was threatening and disturbing in that regard, Proofpoint's report noted.

"TA453 utilized multiple compromised email accounts, including those of a high-ranking military official, to deliver a link to the target," researchers explained. "The use of multiple compromised email accounts to target a single target is unusual for TA453. While each of the URLs observed were unique to each compromised email account, each linked to the domain gettogether[.]quest and pointed to the same threatening message in Hebrew."

The message read: "I'm sure you remember what I told you. Every email you get from your friends may be me and not someone who it claims. We follow you like your shadow, in Tel Aviv, in [redacted], in Dubai, in Bahrain. Take care of yourself."

Updated Cyber-Targets for Charming Kitten

Previous Charming Kitten email campaigns had almost always targeted academics, researchers, diplomats, dissidents, journalists, and human rights activists, using web beacons in message texts before eventually attempting to tap the target's credentials. Such campaigns can start with weeks of innocuous conversations on accounts created by the actors before launching the actual attack.

The new campaigns have targeted specific researchers in the medical field, an aerospace engineer, a real estate agent, and travel agents, among others, wrote Proofpoint researchers Joshua Miller and Crista Giering in a post this week.

In some cases, TA453 relies on a fictitious person, "Samantha Wolf," as bait. Proofpoint researchers first identified the persona in mid-March when the associated Gmail account was included in the bait content of a malicious document.

"Samantha's confrontational lures demonstrate an interesting attempt to generate engagement with targets not seen from other TA453 accounts," the report noted.

The Proofpoint report said it could state "with moderate confidence" that the more aggressive activity could represent collaboration with another branch of the Iranian state, including the IRGC Quds Force, which carries out physical operations.

In May, Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet identified Iranian intelligence services' phishing activity designed to lure targets to kidnap them, Proofpoint noted.

"Based on the indicators provided, Proofpoint correlated this activity with TA453 campaigns from December 2021 in which campaigns attributed to TA453 used a spoofed email address of a reputable academic ... to give a researcher an 'Invitation to Zurich Strategic Dialogue Jan-2022,' " according to the report.

About the Author(s)

Nathan Eddy, Contributing Writer

Nathan Eddy is a freelance journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker specializing in IT security, autonomous vehicle technology, customer experience technology, and architecture and urban planning. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Nathan currently lives in Berlin, Germany.

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