Symantec has observed the growth of indigenous groups of attackers in the Middle East, centered around a simple piece of malware known as njRAT. While njRAT is similar in capability to many other remote access tools (RATs), what is interesting about this malware is that it is developed and supported by Arabic speakers, resulting in its popularity among attackers in the region.
The malware can be used to control networks of computers, known as botnets. While most attackers using njRAT appear to be engaged in ordinary cybercriminal activity, there is also evidence that several groups have used the malware to target governments in the region.
Symantec analyzed 721 samples of njRAT and uncovered a fairly large number of infections, with 542 control-and-command (C&C) server domain names found and 24,000 infected computers worldwide. Nearly 80 percent of the C&C servers were located in regions in the Middle East and North Africa, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories and Libya.
Figure 1. Majority of njRAT C&C servers are found in the Middle East and North Africa
The majority of the C&C server IP addresses were traced to ADSL lines, which indicates that most attackers using the malware could be home users in the Middle Eastern region.
njRAT is not new on the cybercrime scene. It has been available since 2012, with three versions already released, all of which can be propagated through infected USB keys or networked drives.
The malware has the basic features common in most RATs. It can download and execute additional malware; execute shell commands; read and write registry keys; capture screenshots; log keystrokes; and snoop on webcams.
Strong online support for Middle East home users
The main reason for njRAT’s popularity in the Middle East and North Africa is a large online community providing support in the form of instructions and tutorials for the malware’s development. The malware’s author also appears to hail from the region. njRAT appears to have been written by a Kuwait-based individual who uses the Twitter handle @njq8. The account has been used to provide updates on when new versions of the malware are available to download.
Figure 2. The creator of njRAT announcing in a tweet that version 0.7 of njRAT is available to download.
Symantec has also located the malware author’s WordPress webpage, which redirects to another Blogspot webpage. The latter displays visitor statistics, indicating that majority of the blog’s visitors come from Saudi Arabia as shown below:
Figure 3. The visitor statistics of @njq8’s Blogspot Web page
Technical support and tutorials on using njRAT are widely available on the Web. Symantec has found numerous video tutorials in the Arabic language containing step-by-step processes for downloading and setting up the malware, including steps such as dynamic DNS naming for C&C servers. This level of support enables attackers in the region to easily to build tools and server components for njRAT.
Figure 4. Description of a video tutorial of how to build an njRAT on hacking group MaDLeeTs’s website
Figure 5. The latest three tutorials on Anonymous Iraq’s YouTube channel are on obfuscating njRAT to evade antivirus software
Hacker groups launch targeted attacks with njRATs
Most njRAT users seem to be home users who are interested in online pranks such as spying on webcams or taking screenshots of victims’ computers. However, infections have also been recorded on the networks of a number of governments and political activists.
Symantec has identified 487 groups of attackers mounting attacks using njRAT. These attacks appear to have different motivations, which can be broadly classed as hacktivism, information theft, and botnet building.
One such group is the S.K.Y.P.E/Tagged group, which has C&C servers hosted in Egypt and Algeria. The group’s vector for infection is a screensaver hosted on the file sharing site ge.tt. When victims download the compressed .rar file containing the screensaver, they get an executable containing njRAT.
Figure 6. The infected screensaver created by the S.K.Y.P.E/Tagged group on the ge.tt file sharing site
It is also interesting to note that the infected file hosted on ge.tt was dated November 20, 2012, indicating that the group was one of the early adopters of the malware.
Symantec has also observed that infection numbers spiked around the time this copy of njRAT was uploaded on ge.tt. The S.K.Y.P.E/Tagged group uses two C&C servers: njratmoony.no-ip.biz and njr.no-ip.biz. The number of newly infected computers reporting to both servers spiked in October and November of 2012.
Figure 7. The daily infection rate of computers reporting to the S.K.Y.P.E/Tagged group’s C&C servers, njratmoony.no-ip.biz and njr.no-ip.biz
njRAT signals growing cybercrime community
As large numbers of Middle Eastern attackers continue to use njRAT due to its accessibility, Symantec expects that they will try to find new ways of obfuscating the malware to evade detection by antivirus software. They are likely to continue to use njRAT since an Arabic speaking community and its Arabic author continue to provide support for the malware.
The more advanced threat actors, such as hacker groups, may continue to use njRAT for targeted attacks in the short term. For example, a report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Citizen Lab found that njRAT is one of a number of tools being used to target Syrian opposition groups during the Syrian conflict. However, Symantec anticipates that such groups will eventually depart from using publicly-available tools like njRAT and begin to develop their own tools and more advanced RATs for cyberattacks.
Symantec detects this threat as Backdoor.Ratenjay.
Update: The original version of this article stated that njRAT first became publicly available in June 2013. It was in fact available since 2012. A dedicated website for the malware was launched in June 2013.