Operation Ironside

More than 800 suspects were arrested in police operations around the world. Using an encrypted app, criminals believed they could communicate securely.
They had no idea that the police had developed the program.

“Operation Ironside” was a deception operation during World War II. In it, the Allies tricked the Nazis, led the Wehrmacht to believe in 1944,
that the British navy would soon land on the coast of northern France.
To feed the Germans the fake information, the British used several double agents.

Now, this week, another “Operation Ironside” has been revealed. The name is probably a deliberate historical reference, because this time, too, it is about a deception maneuver – and about a probably unprecedented blow against organized crime. Europol and the FBI call the same operation “Operation Trojan Shield.”

For years, criminals around the world allegedly used the cell phone app “Anom” to conduct large-scale drug and arms deals and even contract killings. They probably thought the encrypted program was bug-proof, but in fact it was probably a trap: the American FBI and the Australian Federal Police AFP had manipulated the app. On Monday, several thousand police and customs officers in at least sixteen countries around the globe searched numerous homes, offices and warehouses and arrested 800 suspects worldwide. Eight tons of cocaine, five tons of cannabis and two tons of crystal meth were seized. In addition, the investigators found a total of more than 140 million US dollars.

In Germany, too, more than 150 properties were searched on Monday and more than 70 people were arrested, according to the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and the Attorney General’s Office in Frankfurt am Main. More than 120 kilograms of marijuana, 25 kilograms of hashish, three kilograms of heroin, one kilogram of cocaine, more than 6,000 cannabis plants and 20 weapons as well as cash amounting to 250,000 euros had been seized. “So far, more than 20 preliminary proceedings have been opened against more than 80 suspects in this investigative complex,” authorities said.

The unusual operation with the manipulated communication platform began about three years ago. In March 2018, the FBI broke up Canadian cellphone provider Phantom Secure, which had provided criminals around the world with supposedly tap-proof phones.The company had more than 20,000 users at last count, who allegedly paid around $2,000 per phone and for six-month use of the encrypted app. Among them, according to investigators, were exclusively criminals, mainly narcotics traffickers. Company CEO Vincent Ramos was sentenced to nine years in prison and an $80 million payment for aiding drug trafficking and money laundering.

The FBI’s San Diego field office, in breaking up Phantom Secure, eventually succeeded in recruiting an informant who apparently wanted to avoid a prison sentence and was therefore willing to cooperate with U.S. authorities. The informant had previously resold Phantom Secure and crypto phones from the provider Sky Global to criminal networks and was now in the process of developing a new product himself – called “Anom”.The recruited source offered the FBI to be able to use this new app in the investigation and also suggested that he could use his existing customer network to distribute the program at the same time. According to U.S. court documents, the informant, who himself had already served six years in prison for drug trafficking, received a reward of $120,000 for his work, plus another $60,000 in expenses.

The FBI investigators now had access to a crypto app that was apparently considered safe in criminal circles and therefore quickly found many new users. In cooperation with the Australian federal police AFP, the American investigators managed to program “Anom” in such a way that from then on they could secretly read all chat messages, receive photos and videos. The Americans called this clandestine eavesdropping attack “Operation Trojan Shield,” in Australia it was called “Operation Ironshield.”

The criminals apparently had no idea that they had been involuntarily using a government surveillance app for years. To deceive the criminals, the authorities had set up an alleged company website for Anom, including a YouTube channel and Facebook page. Anom does not support any surveillance measures,” the page stated. Only authorities in Panama are authorized to request the company’s data, but as a matter of principle, the company does not store any user data. “It is our business policy to inform users immediately and provide them with a copy of any civil or government request.”

“Anom” is said to have had more than 9,000 users at last count, most of them in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and Serbia, according to the FBI. Drug deals on a huge scale are said to have been conducted through the app, such as the delivery of several tons of cocaine from Ecuador to Belgium and the Netherlands. Some of these operations were stopped by the authorities and narcotics were seized. Assassinations have also been prevented through the surveillance of “Anom,” Australian investigators said in a press conference on Tuesday.It remains unclear, however, how many crimes may not have been prevented. After all, investigators are said to have had access to more than 25 million records. The legal usability of the information in Germany could also become a point of contention in court.

In the meantime, according to research by News Corp Australia, the Australian investigators managed a special coup: they managed to get some of the country’s most wanted criminals not only to use the app themselves, but also to recommend and sell the supposedly secure program to other criminals. According to the report, one of the biggest spreaders of “Anom” is a former rocker boss from Australia, who is said to have been staying in Turkey, among other places, for several years.In Australia, there has been a special challenge for drug investigators for years: among criminals, including motorcycle gangs, but also South American and Asian networks, it is considered extremely lucrative to smuggle narcotics into the country due to the island situation and strict border controls. The street value of imported drugs is comparatively high in Australia. Cocaine, for example, often costs many times more than what is paid for it in the USA or Europe.