Dr. Thamar E. Gindin didn’t know exactly why she was being targeted. She only knew that her attackers were persistent. An expert lecturer on linguistics and pre-Islamic Iranian culture, she had apparently uttered political statements that had piqued the people behind Rocket Kitten—a known attack group notorious for snooping on select high-profile individuals in the Middle East.
In the middle of 2015, Dr. Gindin received numerous spear-phishing emails, one of which contained malware while three others contained links to fake login pages. This was only the beginning. Messages from unknown senders suddenly poured into her Facebook inbox. Hackers launched brute-force attacks, abusing recovery options to take over her cloud accounts. On two separate occasions, attackers even befriended her via phone hoping to get additional details they can use in more phishing emails.
Whatever doubts Dr. Gindin may have had about being a target was definitely cleared by June 2015, when she assisted cybersecurity researchers at ClearSky with the Thamar Reservoir paper—a previous report detailing Rocket Kitten activities. It was during this time she realized that Rocket Kitten had been intentionally hounding her. Despite her discovery, the attackers remained persistent. Even after the paper was published, Dr. Gindin still received Google notifications of password reset requests she never made.
Rocket Kitten Modus on ClearSky Researcher
Knowing Dr. Gindin’s involvement with ClearSky may have pushed Rocket Kitten to set their sights on one of their researchers. These attackers may have accessed emails revealing Dr. Gindin talking to a ClearSky researcher, or they may have independently realized that the security group was already investigating them. It’s also possible that the attackers accessed emails from other Rocket Kitten victims who have been in contact with ClearSky. Either way, the attackers exploited this intelligence and used it as bait.
What followed was a series of persistent attempts, turning into a slightly new modus operandi for the Rocket Kitten group. We had previously reported that Rocket Kitten was involved in the delivery of GHOLE malware and the covert Woolen-Goldfish campaign.
Here’s a breakdown of what they did:
- Social Media: The attackers first tried to approach a ClearSky threat researcher using a fake Facebook profile. This didn’t work.
- Fake Email: The attackers then sent an email using a fake ClearSky email address they created, clearsky[.]cybersec[.]group@gmail[.]com, to a ClearSky researcher. However, the latter called the supposed sender to confirm the email and exposed it as a fake.
Figure 1. Spear-phishing email received by a target supposedly from a ClearSky researcher
- Malicious Links: The said email used the name of Trend Micro to appear legitimate. The first link “Trend Micro security” leads to the real company site, but the second link leads to a malicious file, named HousecallLauncher.EXE.
- Social Engineering: It’s quite adaptive for the attackers to use the Trend Micro brand as a lure, considering that our previous research into their operations can create a false sense of security that will entice victims to download the product.
- Malicious File: The malicious file eventually connects the infected machine to the attackers’ C&C server, allowing them remote access to the network.
The paper The Spy Kittens Are Back: Rocket Kitten 2 puts context to these specific and ongoing political espionage incidents linked to Rocket Kitten. It fleshes out the technical details of the attacks on both Dr. Gindin and the ClearSky researcher, including the use of macros and backdoors in gaining access to their accounts.