A recently-discovered advanced persistent threat (APT) group is targeting diplomats across Africa and the Middle East. 

Revealed on Thursday by ESET researchers, the state-sponsored group, dubbed BackdoorDiplomacy, has been linked to successful attacks against Ministries of Foreign Affairs in numerous African countries, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia — alongside a smaller subset of telecommunications firms in Africa and at least one charity outfit in the Middle East.

BackdoorDiplomacy is thought to have been in operation since at least 2017. The cross-platform group targets both Linux and Windows systems and seems to prefer to exploit internet-facing, vulnerable devices as an initial attack vector. 

If web servers or network management interfaces are found which have weak points, such as software vulnerabilities or poor file-upload security, the APT will strike. In one case observed by ESET, an F5 bug — CVE-2020-5902 — was used to deploy a Linux backdoor, whereas, in another, BackdoorDiplomacy adopted Microsoft Exchange server bugs to deploy China Chopper, a webshell. 

Once they have obtained entry, the threat actors will scan the device for the purposes of lateral movement; install a custom backdoor, and deploy a range of tools to conduct surveillance and data theft. 

The backdoor, dubbed Turian, is thought to be based on the Quarian backdoor — malware linked to attacks used against diplomatic targets in Syria and the US back in 2013.

The main implant is capable of harvesting and exfiltrating system data, taking screenshots, and also overwriting, moving/deleting, or stealing files. 

Among the tools used is network tunnel software EarthWorm; Mimikatz, NetCat, and software developed by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and dumped by ShadowBrokers, such as EternalBlue, DoublePulsar, and EternalRocks. 

VMProtect was used in most cases to try and obfuscate the group’s activities. 

Diplomats may have to deal with sensitive information handed over through removable drives and storage. To widen the scope of its cyberespionage activities, BackdoorDiplomacy will scan for flash drives and will attempt to copy all files from them into a password-protected archive which is then whisked off to a command-and-control (C2) center via the backdoor. 

While BackdoorDiplomacy has been registered as an APT in its own right, there do appear to be other links, or at least, common threads, with other threat groups. 

The network encryption protocol used by the APT is almost identical to that used by the Calypso group’s Whitebird backdoor, and this malware was deployed against diplomatic targets in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan during 2017 – 2020. In addition, ESET believes there are commonalities with CloudComputating/Platinum, which has targeted diplomatic, government, and military organizations across Asia in previous years. 

Other coding and mechanism clues are similar to Rehashed Rat and MirageFox/APT15

, This new hacking group has a nasty surprise for African, Middle East diplomats

In other research this month, Check Point Research discovered a novel backdoor developed by Chinese threat actors over the course of three years. The malware, dubbed VictoryDll_x86.dll, was used to compromise a network belonging to a Southeast Asian government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

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