In February 2022, Cisco Talos researchers started observing China-linked cyberespionage group Mustang Panda conducting phishing attacks against European entities, including Russian organizations. The attacks were also reported by Google’s TAG team, which confirmed they were for intelligence purposes.
MustangPanda, also known as “RedDelta” or “Bronze President,” has been active since at least 2012, it targeted American and European entities such as government organizations, think tanks, NGOs, and even Catholic organizations at the Vatican. Past campaigns were focused on Asian countries, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Tibet, and Myanmar.
In recent campaigns, threat actors used European Union reports on the conflict in Ukraine and Ukrainian government reports as lures. Upon opening the reports, the infection process starts leading to the deployment of malware on the victim’s system.
The final state malware employed in this campaign is the PlugX implant, custom stagers and reverse shells and meterpreter-based shellcode.
“The threat actor heavily relies on sending lures via phishing emails to achieve initial infection. These lures often masquerade as legitimate documents of national and organizational interest to the targets.” reads the report published by Cisco Talos. “These infection vectors deploy malware predominantly consisting of the PlugX remote access trojan (RAT) with custom stagers, reverse shells, meterpreter and Cobalt Strike, which act as another mechanism for achieving long term access into their targets.”
The attack chains observed in the recent Mustang Panda attacks involved the use of benign executable used to side-load a malicious DLL used as a loader for the PlugX implant.
In some cases, the threat actors used stagers and reverse shells instead of using PlugX.
“Over the years, Mustang Panda has evolved their tactics and implants to target a wide range of entities spanning multiple governments in three continents, including the European Union, the U.S., Asia and pseudo allies such as Russia. By using summit- and conference-themed lures in Asia and Europe, this attacker aims to gain as much long-term access as possible to conduct espionage and information theft.” concludes the report.
“Apart from Mustang Panda’s tool of choice, PlugX, we’ve observed a steady increase in the use of intermediate payloads such as a variety of stagers and reverse shells. The group has also continuously evolved its delivery mechanisms consisting of maldocs, shortcut files, malicious archives and more recently seen downloaders starting with 2022.”
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(SecurityAffairs – hacking, Mustang Panda)