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What the hell actually happened in the FBI crime app sting?

An ‘unprecedented’ three-year operation has seen global authorities reel in hundreds of criminals with An0m, a fake encrypted messaging app

More than 800 criminals have been arrested in tens of countries across the world, after signing up for an encrypted messaging app set up by the FBI. The “unprecedented” sting operation saw the agency, alongside European and Australian police, ensnare suspects involved in trading narcotics across Australia, Asia, Europe, South America, and the Middle East on Monday, but what actually happened?

Well, the story apparently starts with Australian police and FBI agents chatting over a few beers, back in 2018. According to Australia’s federal police commissioner, Reece Kershaw, that’s where the plan to take over an encrypted communication platform originated. “I wasn’t there,” he told reporters on Tuesday, “but as you know some of the best ideas come over a couple of beers.”

A supposedly secure messaging app, titled An0m, was subsequently developed with a loophole to offer the FBI and Australian Federal Police (AFP) access to decrypted messages in real-time, and secretly distributed among organised crime networks. This was partly facilitated by “criminal influencers” — AKA high-profile criminals, such as the fugitive drug trafficker and cartel founder Hakan Ayik — who unwittingly gave out phones with the app pre-loaded.

The investigators also shut down two rival communications companies based in Canada — Phantom Secure and Sky Global — to encourage users to hop on An0m for all of their shady business needs (which they did, in droves). In the years that followed, more than 27 million messages were intercepted, sent by more than 10,000 people, and in 45 different languages.

Because it was supposed to be completely encrypted, criminals were presumably more lax with the information they shared via An0m. Conversations on the app included open discussions about everything from massive drug imports to murder plots.

“It was there to be seen, including ‘we’ll have a speedboat meet you at this point’, ‘this is who will do this’, and so on,” added Kershaw. “We have been in the back pockets of organised crime … All they talk about is drugs, violence, hits on each other, innocent people who are going to be murdered.”

Codenamed Operation Ironside, the three-year investigation has led to the seizure of 3.7 tonnes of drugs, cryptocurrency, and assets expected to total millions of dollars, including over 50 luxury cars. Just on Monday alone, police reportedly seized 104 firearms (including a military-grade sniper rifle), along with £25 million in cash.

Australian police say that they have arrested 224 suspected criminals thanks to the operation, while Europe saw 75 arrests in Sweden, 60 in Germany, and a further 49 in the Netherlands, with other figures yet to be revealed. In the US, several people have been arrested for distributing An0m-enabled devices (which were, after all, “designed by criminals, for criminals exclusively”).

The operation has also revealed that gangs have been tipped off about police actions, prompting “several high-level public corruption cases” worldwide. Unsurprisingly, it’s additionally expected to cause some conflict within the international underworld itself, as criminals realise they’ve been sliding into the FBI’s DMs.