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Sensemaker audio

The app that trapped criminals

The app that trapped criminals

A mobile phone app and an Aussie crime boss gave the FBI one of their biggest breakthroughs


transcript

Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world

Today, how Australia’s most wanted man inadvertently helped the FBI arrest hundreds of criminals.

***

“He’s a rat-cunning ruthless gangster, who’s made an eye-watering fortune importing massive quantities of drugs into Australia. Law enforcement authorities call the criminal network he helps run the Aussie Cartel.”

Australian news report

Law enforcement authorities across the world have had quite a good few days at the office this week.

They revealed the details of a secret global sting operation which has been going on for three years.

They came out of it with quite a haul.

Dozens of tonnes of cocaine and cannabis… 250 firearms including a high-powered sniper rifle… 55 luxury cars including a McLaren supercar… Even memorabilia from The Godfather movie.

The global team, led by the FBI, have made more than 800 arrests across 16 countries. They reckon they’ve prevented more than 150 threats to human life.

And they owe most of their success to a man called Hakan Ayik, who led the criminals and their loot right into the hands of law enforcement.

So how did Hakan Ayik, an alleged drug baron, end up as the FBI’s most useful idiot?

“In March 2008, police officers at Jandakot airport near Perth intercepted a light aircraft they believed was carrying illegal drugs. $7 million worth of methylamphetamine and ecstasy tablets crammed in a bag in the back of this small plane.”

Australian news report

For more than a decade, Hakan Ayik – the Australian son of Turkish migrants – has been known as the Facebook Gangster.

$300,000 watches, designer clothes, trips to Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong and Mumbai… he’s a real life Mr Big… a huge man with huge tattoos, who flaunts his lifestyle… and taunts his pursuers.

After the police issued an Interpol warrant for his arrest back in 2010, he wrote on social media: “Catch me if you can.”

He’s believed to run something called the Aussie Cartel, a criminal network which has become a huge and dangerous pain in the neck for Australian law enforcement.

“They are all the same nationality: Australian. They share supply routes, they share logistic supply chains. They share amongst themselves the doors, or the way in, to Australia. They share any corrupt networks they may have here to swap information with each other.”

“What are the Aussie Cartel making?”

“We would estimate that they are responsible for about a third of the drug importation into our country.”

Australian news interview with law enforcement official

Hakan Ayik is still at large. 

But, thanks to his actions, hundreds of other criminals are not.

So what did the FBI sting actually involve?

“For the first time the FBI developed and operated its own hardened encrypted device company called Anom. A-n-o-m. As we allege in our indictment, criminal organisations and the individual defendants that we have charged purchased and distributed Anom devices in an effort to secretly plan and execute their crimes.”

FBI news conference

For the last couple of years, criminals around the world have fixed massive drug shipments, discussed contract killings, and generally chewed the fat without detection.

Or so they thought.

“The criminals using these devices believe they were secretly planning crimes far beneath the radar of law enforcement. But, in reality, the criminals weren’t underneath the radar. They were on it.”

FBI news conference

In 2018, Australian police met with the FBI. Over a couple of beers, they had an idea.

Organised crime groups love encrypted software. It makes them feel safe. It makes them talk. So why not dangle a carrot?

The FBI got hold of an informant who had been developing an encrypted messaging app called Anom which was going to be hidden behind a calculator app on stripped down mobile phones.

They paid the informant $120,000 and in return he let them control it. 

The informant offered the Anom phone to three people connected to organised crimes in Australia, and the FBI crossed their fingers.

That’s where Hakan Ayik comes in. He was given an Anom phone and he obviously liked the way it looked. So he recommended it to other criminals.

And the rest is history. Anom took off in the underworld. Law enforcement intercepted more than 20 million messages, and, then, they moved in.

“Police search warrant, open the door [loud knocks]. Police search warrant, open the door [loud knocks again, followed by a battering ram].”

Video of Australian police raid

Hakan Ayik, unwittingly, became an FBI influencer.

“It’s like a family tree,” said a member of the Australian Federal Police, “you could probably trace almost all devices back to him.”

Hakan Ayik is still on the run, but perhaps not for much longer. 

A joint investigation by three Australian news organisations has tracked him down to a hotel in Istanbul. The King’s Cross Hotel.

And it all started with a short, blurry video of Hakan Ayik in the hotel lobby. It was posted on the hotel’s Instagram account last February.

Technology is letting criminals avoid detection in ever more sophisticated ways. 

But for Hakan Ayik, and for the hundreds of criminals he accidentally outed, technology might also end up being a downfall.

Today’s story was written and produced by Xavier Greenwood.


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