Global sting involving FBI-designed app deals heavy blow to criminal gangs

Criminals believed phones were secure, but police were reading all messages in real time

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

 

Police in 16 countries have made more than 800 arrests in a global sting constructed around an encrypted messaging app secretly developed and deployed by the FBI.

The sting secured a worldwide haul that included eight tonnes of cocaine, 22 tonnes of cannabis and cannabis resin, and two tonnes of synthetic drugs, as well as 250 firearms, 55 luxury vehicles and some €40 million in cash and various cryptocurrencies.

The European policing agency, Europol, which co-ordinated Operation Trojan Shield/Greenlight from its headquarters in The Hague, described it as “the biggest ever law enforcement operation against encrypted communication” focused exclusively on high-value targets of global scale.

At the heart of the operation was a platform named Anom, created and run by the FBI specifically to fill a purposely created gap in the lucrative criminal market after encrypted service providers, EncroChat and SkyECC, were shut down in 2020 and earlier this year respectively.

The rarity of the new encrypted Anom phones, and the idea that they had been created specifically for the underworld, were their most attractive features for the international criminal classes.

The strategy was to make them available only, initially at least, to senior criminal figures, making them immediately sought-after and giving others the confidence to use them.

In terms of their security, the beauty of the phones was that they could not be used to make calls or email and could only communicate directly with someone else using the same platform. That apparently closed system convinced users they were impervious to monitoring or hacking.

“You had to know a criminal to get hold of one of these customised phones,” said one police spokesman.

Murders thwarted

During the lifetime of the sting, about 12,000 encrypted phones were used by the bosses of 300 criminal gangs operating in more than 100 countries, including Mafia and Asian syndicates.

Whereas those criminals believed their phones were totally secure, every communication was being read in real time by police and intelligence agencies – who could then intervene to prevent murders, drugs shipments, money laundering and more. Over 18 months they had access to more than 27 million messages sent via the Anom app.

In the Netherlands, national police chief Janine van den Berg said a string of 25 drugs labs had been raided in recent days. Swedish police say the operation prevented 10 murders, leading to 70 arrests.

In Australia, more than 220 mafia and motorcycle gang members have been arrested as a result of the sting. About 4,000 police officers took part in the operation, which uncovered 21 murder plots and seized more than 3,000kg of drugs, $45 million (€28.6 million) in cash and 104 weapons.

Prime minister Scott Morrison said the operation had dealt a “heavy blow” against organised crime, which had been using encrypted technology to disguise its criminality for many years.

Federal police commissioner Reece Kershaw said it had helped capture some of the country’s most dangerous criminals.

“We allege they are members of outlaw motorcycle gangs, Australian mafia, Asian crime syndicates and serious and organised crime groups. We allege they’ve been trafficking illicit drugs into Australia at an industrial scale,” he said.

In danger

Mr Kershaw said Hakan Ayik, an Australian fugitive who has been living in Turkey and is suspected of being a major organiser of drug imports into Australia, was viewed as one of the most influential users and backers of Anom.

He advised Ayik to give himself up because he had unwittingly helped set up a vast number of underworld figures and was now in danger. “He was one of the co-ordinators of this particular device, so he’s essentially set up his own colleagues,” Mr Kershaw said.

Anthony Russo, the FBI’s representative at the US embassy in Canberra, said the worldwide co-operation was necessary to tackle organised crime. “In today’s world, crime continues to transverse international borders,” he said. “The threats we face are too diverse and too complex for any one organisation to tackle alone.”