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Operation Molerats: Middle East Cyber Attacks Using Poison Ivy

Don’t be too hasty to link every Poison Ivy-based cyber attack to China. The popular remote access tool (RAT), which we recently detailed on this blog, is being used in a broad campaign of attacks launched from the Middle East, too.

First, some background:

In October 2012, malware attacks against Israeli government targets grabbed media attention as officials temporarily cut off Internet access for its entire police force and banned the use of USB memory sticks. [1] Security researchers subsequently linked these attacks to a broader, yearlong campaign that targeted not just Israelis but Palestinians as well. [2] — and as discovered later, even the U.S. and UK governments. [3] Further research revealed a connection between these attacks and members of the so-called “Gaza Hackers Team.” We refer to this campaign as “Molerats.” 

Threat actors in specific geographic regions may prefer one RAT to another, but many RATs are publicly available and used by a variety of threat actors, including those involved in malware-based espionage.

In 2012, the Molerats attacks appeared to rely heavily on the XtremeRAT, a freely available tool that is popular with attackers based in the Middle East. [5] But the group has also used Poison Ivy (PIVY), a RAT more commonly associated with threat actors in China [6] — so much so that PIVY has, inaccurately, become synonymous with all APT attacks linked to China.

This blog post analyzes several recent Molerats attacks that deployed PIVY against targets in the Middle East and in the U.S. We also examine additional PIVY attacks that leverage Arabic-language content related to the ongoing crisis in Egypt and the wider Middle East to lure targets into opening malicious files. [7]

Enter Poison Ivy

We observed several attacks in June and July 2013 against targets in the Middle East and the U.S. that dropped a PIVY payload that connected to command-and-control (CnC) infrastructure used by the Molerats attackers.


The malware sample we analyzed was unusual for two reasons:

  • It referenced an article that was published last year
  • The compile time for the dropped binary was also dated from last year, seemingly consistent with the referenced article. But this malware was signed, and — in contrast to the compile time, which can be faked — the signing time on its certificate was much more recent: Monday, July 08, 2013 1:45:10 A.M.

Here are the file details:

Hamas shoot down Israeli F-16 fighter jet by modern weapon in Gaza sea.doc- – - – - – - – - – - -.scr

MD5: 7084f3a2d63a16a191b7fcb2b19f0e0d

This malware was signed with a forged Microsoft certificate similar to previous XtremeRat samples. But the serial number (which is often reused by attackers, enabling FireEye researchers to link individual attacks, including those by the Molerats) is different this time.


The malware dropped an instance of PIVY with the following configuration:

ID: F16 08-07-2013
DNS/Port: Direct: toornt.servegame.com:443,
Proxy DNS/Port:
Proxy Hijack: No
ActiveX Startup Key:
HKLM Startup Entry:
File Name:
Install Path: C:\Documents and Settings\Admin\Local Settings\Temp\morse.exe
Keylog Path: C:\Documents and Settings\Admin\Local Settings\Temp\morse
Inject: No
Process Mutex: gdfgdfgdg
Key Logger Mutex:
ActiveX Startup: No
HKLM Startup: No
Copy To: No
Melt: No
Persistence: No
Keylogger: No
Password: !@#GooD#@!

We collected additional PIVY samples that had the same password or linked to CnC infrastructure at a common IP address (or both). We observed three PIVY passwords (another potential identifier) used in the attacks: “!@#GooD#@!”, “!@#Goood#@!” and “admin100”.

Additional Samples with Middle Eastern Themes

We also found a PIVY sample used by this group that leveraged what are known as key files instead of passwords. The PIVY builder allows operators to load .pik files containing a key to secure communications between the compromised computer and the attacker’s machine. By default, PIVY secures these communications with the ascii text password of “admin” — when the same non-default password appears in multiple attacks, researchers can conclude that the attacks are related.

The PIVY sample in question had an MD5 hash of 9dff139bbbe476770294fb86f4e156ac and communicated with a CnC server at toornt.servegame.com over port 443. The key file used to secure communications contained the following ascii string ‘Password (256 bits):\x0d\x0aA9612889F6’ (where \x0d\x0a represents a line break).


The 9dff139bbbe476770294fb86f4e156ac sample dropped a decoy document in Arabic that included a transcript of an interview with Salam Fayyad, the former Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority.

The sample 16346b95e6deef9da7fe796c31b9dec4 was also seen communicating with toornt.servegame.com over port 443. This sample appears to have been delivered to its targets via a link to a RAR archive labeled Ramadan.rar (fc554a0ad7cf9d4f47ec4f297dbde375) hosted at the Dropbox file-sharing website.


The sample a8714aac274a18f1724d9702d40030bf dropped a decoy document in Arabic that contained a biography of General Adbel Fattah el-Sisi – the Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces.


A recent sample (d9a7c4a100cfefef995785f707be895c) used protests in Egypt to entice recipients to open a malicious file.


Another sample (b0a9abc76a2b4335074a13939c59bfc9) contained a decoy with a grim picture of Fadel Al Radfani, who was the adviser to the defense minister of Yemen before he was assassinated.

Although we are seeing Egyptian- and Middle Eastern-themed attacks using decoy content in Arabic, we cannot determine the intended targets of all of these attacks.

Delivery Vector

We believe that the Molerats attacker uses spear phishing to deliver weaponized RAR files containing their malicious payloads to their victims in at least two different ways. The Molerats actor will in some cases attach the weaponized RAR file directly to their spear- phishing-emails. We also believe that this actor sends spear-phishing emails that include links to RAR files hosted on third-party platforms such as Dropbox.

In one such example we found the following link was used to host Ramadan.rar (fc554a0ad7cf9d4f47ec4f297dbde375):


CnC Infrastructure

We have found 15 PIVY samples that can be linked through common passwords, common CnC domain names, and common IP addresses to which the CnC domains resolve. The CnC servers for this cluster of activity are:

  • toornt.servegame.com
  • updateo.servegame.com
  • egypttv.sytes.net
  • skype.servemp3.com
  • natco2.no-ip.net

Two of the domain names (natco2.no-ip.net and skype.servemp3.com) that were used as CnCs for PIVY were both documented as XtremeRat CnCs that were used in previous attacks. [8]


We focused on these domains and their IP addresses — which they had in common with toornt.servegame.com. In addition, we added the well-known CnCs good.zapto.org and hint.zapto.org used in previously documented attacks.

By observing changes in DNS resolution that occurred within the same timeframe, we were able to ensure that the passive DNS data we collected was the same. Interestingly, we also found that the domains often shifted to a new IP address over time.

CnC Date IP
toornt.servegame.comnatco2.no-ip.netskype.servemp3.comgood.zapto.orghint.zapto.org 2013-07-10 22:06:562013-07-10 22:05:312013-07-10 23:45:462013-07-10 23:48:412013-07-10 23:48:41
toornt.servegame.comnatco2.no-ip.netskype.servemp3.comgood.zapto.orghint.zapto.org 2013-07-16 09:14:302013-07-16 11:33:212013-07-16 12:47:592013-07-16 12:50:512013-07-16 12:50:51
toornt.servegame.comnatco2.no-ip.nethint.zapto.org 2013-07-21 15:00:382013-07-21 15:28:432013-07-21 16:31:07
toornt.servegame.comnatco2.no-ip.net 2013-07-21 22:06:192013-07-21 22:04:49
toornt.servegame.comnatco2.no-ip.netskype.servemp3.comgood.zapto.orghint.zapto.org 2013-07-29 15:38:212013-07-29 15:35:522013-07-29 16:46:352013-07-29 16:49:272013-07-29 16:49:27
natco2.no-ip.netgood.zapto.orghint.zapto.orgtoornt.servegame.comomagle.serveblog.netskype.servemp3.com 2013-07-10 22:05:312013-07-10 22:06:352013-07-10 22:06:372013-07-10 22:06:562013-07-10 22:19:032013-07-10 22:19:31
egypttv.sytes.nettoornt.servegame.com 2013-08-10 14:07:382013-08-10 14:08:43

One interesting discovery concerns a sample (5b740b4623b2d1049c0036a6aae684b0) that was first seen by VirusTotal on September 14, 2012. This date is within the timeframe of the original XtremeRat attacks, but the payload in this case was PIVY. This indicates that the attackers have been using PIVY in addition to XtremeRat for longer than we had originally believed.


We do not know whether using PIVY is an attempt by those behind the Molerats campaign to frame China-based threat actors for their attacks or simply evidence that they have added another effective, publicly-available RAT to its arsenal. But this development should raise a warning flag for anyone tempted to automatically attribute all PIVY attacks to threat actors based in China. The ubiquity of off-the-shelf RATs makes determining those responsible an increasing challenge.

The ongoing attacks are also heavily leveraging content in Arabic that uses conflicts in Egypt and the wider Middle East to lure targets into opening malicious files. But we have no further information about the exact targets of these Arabic lures.

As events on the ground in the Middle East — and in Egypt in particular — receive international attention, we expect the Molerat operators to continue leveraging these headlines to catalyze their operations.

1. http://www.timesofisrael.com/how-israel-police-computers-were-hacked-the-inside-story/ http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/diplomania/israel-s-foreign-ministry-targeted-by-computer-virus-bearing-idf-chief-s-name.premium-1.472278

2. http://download01.norman.no/whitepapers/Cyberattack_against_Israeli_and_Palestinian_targets.pdf

3. http://blog.trendmicro.com/trendlabs-security-intelligence/new-xtreme-rat-attacks-on-usisrael-and-other-foreign-governments/

4. http://blog.trendmicro.com/trendlabs-security-intelligence/new-xtreme-rat-attacks-on-usisrael-and-other-foreign-governments/

5. http://blog.trendmicro.com/trendlabs-security-intelligence/new-xtreme-rat-attacks-on-usisrael-and-other-foreign-governments/

6. http://www.fireeye.com/resources/pdfs/fireeye-poison-ivy-report.pdf

7. The Molerats group also uses addition RATs such as XtremeRat, Cerberus, Cybergate, but we have focused on their used of PIVY in this blog.

8. http://download01.norman.no/whitepapers/Cyberattack_against_Israeli_and_Palestinian_targets.pdf

Yara Signature
This Yara signature can be used to locate signed samples that have the new certificate serial numbers used by Molerats.

rule Molerats_certs
author = “FireEye Labs”
description = “this rule detections code signed with certificates used by the Molerats actor”
$cert1 = {06 50 11 A5 BC BF 83 C0 93 28 16 5E 7E 85 27 75}
$cert2 = {03 e1 e1 aa a5 bc a1 9f ba 8c 42 05 8b 4a bf 28}
$cert3 = {0c c0 35 9c 9c 3c da 00 d7 e9 da 2d c6 ba 7b 6d}
1 of ($cert*)