Give me a crash course in . . . the criminal messaging system bust

Will Irish gangs be caught? Gardaí are hopeful that valuable data will emerge

The ANOM app: Authorities have said that  using phones planted by the US FBI, law enforcement officers were able to read the messages of global underworld figures in about 100 countries. Photograph: Getty

The ANOM app: Authorities have said that using phones planted by the US FBI, law enforcement officers were able to read the messages of global underworld figures in about 100 countries. Photograph: Getty

 

What’s this about the FBI cracking global criminals’ encrypted messages?

That’s not quite what happened, but almost. The truth is even more spectacular. In 2018 a criminal suspect in the US, who specialised in communications for criminals, invented a new encrypted messaging system – a messaging app installed on modified mobile phones. He was a police informer and in 2019 the FBI secured control of his messaging system, called ANOM, and began running it. From that point, American and Australian law enforcement made huge strides in convincing criminals to start using the phones. As their popularity grew, the authorities could read all of the messages being sent. They began sharing the criminals’ messages with police forces around the world.

How did crime gangs fall for phones supplied by the police?

The Americans and Australians used undercover agents posing as a small black market communications company. The ANOM providers convinced criminals – who will pay large sums of money for privacy – to start using the phones, which couldn’t be used as a regular phone to make calls and so on. One Australian cartel boss was especially influential in spreading the phones within organised crime.

What Australian crime lord?

His name is Hakan Ayik (42), born to Turkish parents who emigrated to Australia. He grew up in Sydney and has been a serious player on the Australian gang scene, dealing drugs, for many years. Indeed, he became so high profile in Australia that he fled to Turkey and has been living in Istanbul. When he started using ANOM he then recommended it to the people he dealt with for all their communications. So it appears that entire gangs, and even networks of gangs, introduced the phones across their entire operations, which encouraged its spread. By the time the Australians were first to go public on the sting last week, there were up to 12,500 people using the phones and more than 1,000 of them were in Australia. The overwhelming majority, if not all, of the users were criminals.

But did regular people not also buy these phones?

No, that wasn’t possible. You couldn’t buy the phones in a shop or online and you also couldn’t download the messaging app. The only way to get one of these phones was for a criminal already on the system to source one for you or to introduce you to their source. It is estimated that 300 crime gangs in 100 countries were using the phones. On them they discussed major drug and gun trafficking deals, money laundering and even murders. About 27 million messages were sent; text, photographs or documents.

So will lots of these criminals be caught?

Yes, but the information will take a long time to process and many police forces are really only beginning to do that. Europol said on Tuesday the information analysed had already resulted in 800 suspects being arrested and the seizure of 8 tonnes of cocaine, 2 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

Will Irish gangs be caught?

Gardaí believe so, and they are very hopeful high grade information on the activities of Irish criminals will emerge. Senior Garda officers say it’s likely the force would then take that information and use it as intelligence for operations in the weeks and months ahead.

When the encrypted messaging system EncroChat, which was very popular with criminals, was infiltrated last year by European law enforcement Irish gangs were using it. It is hoped the ANOM system will work in the same way and will assist gardaí investigating gangs. But already it’s had an impact globally and it was an incredible sting operation.