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CSE Malware ZLab – Operation Roman Holiday – Hunting the Russian APT28

CSE Malware ZLab – Operation Roman Holiday – Hunting the Russian APT28

Researchers from the Z-Lab at CSE Cybsec analyzed a new collection of malware allegedly part of a new espionage campaign conducted by the APT28 group.

It was a long weekend for the researchers from the Z-Lab at CSE Cybsec that completed the analysis a number of payloads being part of a new cyber espionage campaign conducted by the Russian APT28 group (aka Fancy BearPawn StormSednit, Sofacy, and Strontium).

Last time experts attributed an ongoing campaign to APT28 was in June, when experts from Palo Alto Networks noticed that the group was using new tools in a recent string of attacks.

Palo Alto Networks explained t the APT group has shifted focus in their interest, from NATO member countries and Ukraine to towards the Middle East and Central Asia.

The researchers observed several attacks leveraging the SPLM and the Zebrocy tool between the second and fourth quarters of 2017 against organizations in Asia. The list of targeted countries included China, Mongolia, South Korea and Malaysia.

While conducting ordinary threat intelligence activities, experts at Z-Lab at CSE Cybsec have recently discovered a new series of malware samples that were submitted to the major online sandboxes.

In particular, they noticed a malware sample submitted to Virus Totalthat was attributed by some experts to the Russian APT28 group.

The APT28 group has been active since at least 2007 and it has targeted governments, militaries, and security organizations worldwide. The group was involved also in the string of attacks that targeted 2016 Presidential election.

With the help of the researcher that goes online with the Twitter handle Drunk Binary (@DrunkBinary) researchers from Z-Lab obtained a collection of samples to compare with the one that was uploaded on VirusTotal platform.

The analysis revealed that it was a new variant of the infamous APT28 backdoor tracked as X-Agent, in particular, a new Windows version that appeared in the wild in June,

The attack analyzed CSE Cybsec is multi-stage, the experts discovered an initial dropper malware written in Delphi programming language (a language used by the APT28 group in other campaigns) downloads a second stage payload from the Internet and executes it.

The payload communicates to the server using HTTPS protocol, making it impossible to eavesdrop on the malicious traffic it generates.

The experts also analyzed another malicious DLL, apparently unrelated to the previous samples, that presents many similarities with other payloads attributed to the Russian APT group.

This malware immediately caught the attention of the expert because it contacts a C2 with the name “” a clear reference to the Italian Military corp, Marina Militare. This lead them into believing that the malicious code was developed as part of targeted attacks against the Italian Marina Militare, or some other entities associated with it.

This last DLL seems to be completely unconnected with the previous samples, but further investigation leads the experts into believing that it was an additional component used by APT28 in this campaign to compromise the target system.

APT28 has a rich arsenal composed of a large number of modular malware and the dll is the component of the X-Agent dissected by the Z-Lab.

X-Agent is a persistent payload injected into the victim machine that can be compiled for almost any Operating System and can be enhanced by adding new ad-hoc component developed for the specific cyber-attack.

In this case, the component was submitted to online sandboxes while the new campaign was ongoing. The experts cannot exclude that the APT group developed the backdoor to target specific organizations including the Italian Marina Militare or any other subcontractor. In their analysis, the experts were not able to directly connect the malicious dll file to the X-Agent samples, but they believe they are both parts of a well-coordinated surgical attack powered by APT28 tracked by Z-Lab as Roman Holiday because it targeted Italian organizations in the summertime.

The dll that connect to “” might be the last stage-malware that is triggered only when particular conditions occur, for example when the malware infects a system with an IP address belonging to specific ranges.

Further details on the malware samples analyzed by CSE Cybsec, including the IoCs and Yara Rules are available in the report published by researchers at ZLAb.

You can download the full ZLAB Malware Analysis Report at the following URL: Holiday-Report_v7.pdf

Update July 27, 2018 – 21:00 CET Time

Researchers published a new version of the report that includes the phylogenesis analysis.
This file analyzed by the team showed a surprising result with the phylogenic analysis with a confidence of 86.77% of compatibility with APT28 X-Agent, based on the correspondence of 1300 pieces of code.

20180713_CSE_APT28_X-Agent_Op-Roman Holiday-Report_v7.pdf

Pierluigi Paganini

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