Anom: Like WhatsApp for criminals, but secretly owned by the FBI

Global sting operation has resulted vast drugs seizures – that’s the tip of the iceberg

US and Australian authorities hacked into an app used by criminals to read millions of encrypted messages, leading to hundreds of arrests of suspected organised crime figures in 18 countries, Australian officials have announced. Video: Reuters

 

One of Australia’s most wanted drugs traffickers has spent much of the last two years recommending a modified mobile phone, with encrypted messaging app, to his criminal allies all over the world unaware it was owned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States.

The messaging service, called Anom, was effectively like WhatsApp, but just for criminals. You couldn’t buy the modified handsets in a shop or online and you couldn’t download the messaging app that was installed onto the phones. Instead you needed a criminal contact to introduce you to those who supplied the kit.

The Anom messaging system appears to have been developed by a suspect in the US back in 2018 in the course of his work supplying encrypted communications tools to organised crime. When he became an FBI informer in 2019 he gave the US agency access to Anom and the FBI took full control of the system. Their undercover agents then effectively began posing as a black market communications company offering the phone to crime gangs. They focused on getting the phone into as many criminals’ hands as it could across the globe.

An alleged Australian drug dealer of Turkish origin unwittingly proved the FBI’s biggest ally. Hakan Ayik (42), who was born in Sydney to Turkish emigrants, has been dubbed “Australia’s most wanted man”. He fled to Turkey a number of years ago to evade capture and has been based in Istanbul where police believe he continues to run his criminal empire.

Undercover agents introduced him to the Anom system and he subsequently recommended it to his associates in Australia, Turkey and other countries. Ayik’s high standing in the underworld meant his recommending the system was crucial to its rapid spread.

Once other criminals began using it, apparently without detection, they grew in confidence and word of mouth did the rest. By the time the Australian government was first to go public on Tuesday about their leading role in the spectacular global sting operation up to 12,500 Anom phones were active within the underworld across the globe, including 1,100 in Australia.

When the EncroChat encrypted messaging system, which was very popular with organised crime, was infiltrated by European law enforcement last year, some of its users switched to Anom as an alternative. And when Sky ECC – another encrypted messaging system – was taken down in March, a large number of its users migrated to Anom.

Europol said on Tuesday that the takedown of Sky ECC in March was a strategic move to push its users onto the FBI-controlled Anom system.

An Garda Síochána is now just one national police force in an estimated 100 countries around the world set to benefit from the biggest Trojan horse operation against global crime’s use of encrypted messaging.

As criminals on the system sent messages to each other – about drug shipments, gun sales, money laundering and murders they were planning – they believed their text messages, photos and documents could never be accessed by international law enforcement. As a result, many of them did little to conceal their identities or other vital details about their criminal empires.

All the while the FBI was in control. The Americans worked with Australian law enforcement to decrypt the messages in real time; all 29 million of them since 2019.

The Americans and Australians led the charge but included the EU’s policing agency Europol. In the European context, the police in Sweden and the Netherlands appear to have had most to say to date about their involvement in the operation. On Tuesday they spoke openly about the successful raids they have already executed against gangs in their countries, as well as the murders they prevented using the information that came from the operation.

However, only 16 countries whose law enforcement agencies have benefitted from the information have publicly commented on their involvement. The other nations have taken a more covert approach as they continue to analyse the messages relating to the gangs in their jurisdictions. But the intelligence on the Anom system is now expected to lead to thousands of spin-off operations against organised crime in the months ahead.

The two-year global sting is known as Operation Trojan Shield, Operation Greenlight or Operation Ironside, depending on what part of the world you are in. Europol said on Tuesday the information analysed to date had already resulted in 800 suspects being arrested and the seizure of eight tonnes of cocaine, two tonnes of amphetamines and 22 tonnes of cannabis. There have also been 700 house searches, 250 firearms seized and $48 million in cash or cryptocurrency seized. However, it is expected those results will prove just the tip of the iceberg.