Law enforcement officials around the world announced Tuesday they had tricked hundreds of alleged criminals into using an encrypted messaging app called Anom, secretly controlled by the FBI.
The audacious effort saw the American investigation service team up with Australian police and a host of European law enforcement agencies to give officials a backdoor view of alleged global criminal enterprises.
Here’s what we know about the string and its impact.
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What is Anom?
For users, it appeared to be an app that could be used to communicate without fear of monitoring by law enforcement. Like WhatsApp or text messaging, it allowed for text, photo and video based chats, but unlike those apps, AN0M appeared to be designed for illicit use.
Law enforcement officials said that users had flocked to the app after other encrypted messaging services, such as EncroChat, had been shut down by authorities. AN0M came pre-installed on phones with limited functionality, bought on the black market.
It was popular. Though six month contracts could cost up to $2,000, there were almost 12,000 devices, per court documents filed by the FBI on Tuesday. Purchase generally requiring approval from an existing user, officials said, meaning users felt safe.
But the app was itself a ruse, cooked up by Australian and U.S. officials in 2018. Though messages were encrypted, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies had built in a master key to the system, meaning officials could decrypt and store any messages sent without the user knowing.
The FBI called the plan Operation Trojan Shield and the Australian Federal Police called it Special Operation Ironside.
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Who has been arrested?
Though AN0M was available at first in only a limited number of countries, it eventually spread. The FBI said in a filing Tuesday that it was in use in 90 countries, with the most users found in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and Serbia.
Law enforcement officials said on Tuesday that an international coalition working together had arrested more than 800 people, and gained insights into criminal blocs as diverse as South American drug cartels and Triad groups in Asia.
Among the largest operations was in Australia, where 224 people were arrested on 525 charges. Police also said they had shut down six clandestine laboratories and acted on 21 threats to kill, including one which saved a family of five.
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What has been seized?
Announcing the operation on Tuesday, authorities emphasized the illicit goods and other items that had been seized as a result of the sting.
Officials from Europol, the European police agency, said in a statement that raids around the world had led to the “seizure of over 8 tons of cocaine, 22 tons of cannabis and cannabis resin, 2 tons of synthetic drugs (amphetamine and methamphetamine), 6 tons of synthetic drugs precursors, 250 firearms, 55 luxury vehicles and over $48 million in various worldwide currencies and cryptocurrencies.”
The statement also said that “countless spinoff operations will be carried out in the weeks to come.”
Photos released by law enforcement agencies showed large bundles of cash, handguns and rifles with long-range scopes and a McLaren sports car.
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How could the underworld react?
Law enforcement officials expect “there will be reprisals, there will be debts owed, there will be conflict,” David Hudson, the investigations and counterterrorism deputy commissioner for Australia’s federal police, told reporters Tuesday.
While monitoring the app, police found that alleged criminals were doing business behind each other’s backs. And in the wake of the mass arrests, officials warn, other criminal syndicates could spring up to fill the vacuum.
The Australian Federal Police has beefed up its serious crime unit and gang division in preparation for that possibility, Hudson said.
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Who is Hakan Ayik, the Australian fugitive who gave investigators their big break?
One of the most wanted criminals in Australia, Ayik fled the country over a decade ago and is suspected of being a high-level drug trafficker who continues to control the flow of imports from Turkey.
Ayik has not yet been arrested, but officials said Tuesday that undercover officers had been able to dupe him into becoming an early adopter of the app and promoting it to others in his network.
“He’s essentially set up his own colleagues,” Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said, urging Ayik to turn himself in before he or his family could become a target because of his unwitting role in the scheme.
Earlier this month, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Ayik appeared to be living a lavish lifestyle in Istanbul and that law enforcement sources believed he might have gotten plastic surgery to be less recognizable.