Mahdi cyberespionage malware infects computers in Iran, Israel, other Middle Eastern countries

Security researchers from Kaspersky Lab and Seculert discover new cyberespionage operation targeting Middle Eastern countries

A piece of malware called Mahdi or Madi has been used to spy on hundreds of targets from Iran, Israel and a few other Middle Eastern countries during the past eight months, according to researchers from security vendors Seculert and Kaspersky Lab.

Mahdi is capable of logging keystrokes, taking screenshots at specified intervals, recording audio and stealing a variety of documents, images, archives and other files, Kaspersky Lab researchers said in a blog post on Tuesday.

Its name comes from a file called mahdi.txt that gets dropped on infected computers. According to Islamic beliefs, Mahdi is a Messianic figure who will rule the world before Judgment Day and will cleanse it of injustice and wrongdoing.

Seculert discovered the Mahdi malware several months ago while investigating a suspicious email message with a fake document attached, the company's researchers said Tuesday in a blog post.

The company shared its findings with Kaspersky Lab in order to determine if Mahdi shares any similarities to Flame, a highly sophisticated cyberespionage threat that also targeted organizations from Iran and the Middle East.

The two companies worked together to redirect the malware's traffic to a server under their control -- an operation called sinkholing -- and analyze it. This allowed them to identify over 800 victims, most of them located in Iran and Israel.

"Large amounts of data collection reveal the focus of the campaign on Middle Eastern critical infrastructure engineering firms, government agencies, financial houses, and academia," the Kaspersky researchers said. "Individuals within this victim pool and their communications were selected for increased monitoring over extended periods of time."

The Mahdi malware is distributed via rogue emails that use basic social engineering techniques to trick recipients into opening specially crafted PowerPoint files.

The malware installer is embedded inside these files and gets executed if users agree to a PowerPoint security warning alerting them about the security risks associated with loading inserted objects.

It's not clear if this is a state-sponsored attack, Seculert's chief technology officer Aviv Raff said Tuesday via email. The Mahdi malware is not among the most complex cyberespionage threats ever found and, in fact, appears to have been written in a rush, he said.

However, "the targeted entities are spread within the members of the attack group, which might suggest that this attack requires large investment or financial backing," Raff said.

This attack campaign was implemented with limited and rudimentary technology, said Costin Raiu, director of Kaspersky Lab's global research and analysis team.

As far as complexity goes, the Mahdi attack would rank lower than the recent attacks against Tibetan and Uighur activists, Raiu said. At least those campaigns use some type of software exploits to install cyberespionage malware, whereas the Mahdi attackers relied solely on social engineering, he said.

The Mahdi samples analyzed by Seculert and Kaspersky attempted to communicate with four different command and control servers -- three of them located in Canada and one in Iran's capital, Tehran.

There's no definitive proof of the malware's origin yet. However, the presence of a command and control server in Tehran could suggest that the attackers are Iranian, especially since other clues found in the malware indicate that they are fluent in Farsi and use dates in the Persian calendar format, Raff said.

The fact that these attackers managed to infect hundreds of targets despite the simplicity of the techniques used is a bit puzzling, Raiu said. Every serious antivirus product should be able to catch and block this malware, he said.

It probably means that the victims were not using the right security products, Raff said. "As the attack is still active the number [of victims] will probably get higher."

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