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Researchers uncover 'Mahdi' malware targeting Iran and Israel

Middle-Eastern intelligence service suspected

Security companies Seculert and Kaspersky Lab have found what they suspect is yet another cyber-weapon targeting Middle-Eastern countries.

Dubbed 'Mahdi', the Trojan campaign is not a weapon on the scale of the highly-unusual Flame malware discovered in May, and there is some evidence to suggest that it is not the work of the US or its allies.

It is undoubtedly an oddity. After collaborating to sinkhole the malware's command and control servers, the two vendors found that the malware's victims were predominantly business people working on infrastructure projects n Iran and Israel.

Operating over the last eight months, engineering students, Israeli financial institutions and government agencies with a connection to the region were also on the target list. There was more.

"Interestingly, our joint analysis uncovered a lot of Persian [Farsi] strings littered throughout the malware and the C&C tools, which is unusual to see in malicious code. The attackers were no doubt fluent in this language," said Seculert's CTO, Aviv Raff.

In total, 387 infected systems were in Iran, 64 in Israel, 14 in Afghanistan, 6 in the UAE, and 4 in Saudi Arabia.

The purpose was simply to steal documents, monitor emails and IM, record audio and images from infected PCs and keylog like crazy, the standard gamut of today's successful Trojan.

Kaspersky described Mahdi as being crude by cyber-malware standards right down to the odd way that it dropped documents on infected machines with a religious and political theme.

Despite its simplicity, Mahdi appears to have worked well hoovering up gigabytes of data from its victims for dispatch to remote servers.

The vendors don't speculate but most likely culprits are a state in the region or a political group with the same interests. One of the servers used to collect data was located in Iran, another in Canada.

The circumstantial evidence to support this hypothesis is the malware's interest in monitoring specific social media applications, including Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, ICQ, Skype, Google+, and Facebook, the very applications Middle-Eastern intelligence agencies routinely watch for dissident activity. Alternatively, it could be an unusual freelance attack by a small group.

"While the malware and infrastructure is very basic compared to other similar projects, the Madi attackers have been able to conduct a sustained surveillance operation against high-profile victims," said Kaspersky Lab's senior malware researcher, Nicolas Brulez.

"Perhaps the amateurish and rudimentary approach helped the operation fly under the radar and evade detection."

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