‘He’s essentially set up his own colleagues’: Pressure on Australia’s most wanted man after raids

Australian police want suspected drug kingpin Hakan Ayik to turn himself in and be extradited home from his Turkish base to face charges after an extraordinary law enforcement operation fooled global organised crime figures into using an app that was secretly controlled by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mr Ayik, Australia’s most wanted man, was duped by police operatives into distributing the app. After taking control of An0m when it was developed, agencies turned the Istanbul-based man into a top promoter and distributor of the platform that ultimately ensnared hundreds of alleged Australian criminals.

Police have urged Hakan Ayik to turn himself in after he was duped into helping bring down an international crime syndicate.

Much of the activity over the past two days was in NSW where state police officers executed 33 search warrants, arrested 35 people and seized 27 firearms, cash, drugs and luxury vehicles in a major operation.

An image showing messages on the encrypted An0m app, released by the US Department of Justice.

An FBI informant developed An0m after the 2018 takedown of a previous platform, Phantom Secure, left a void in the market. The informant gave the FBI access to the app and it was then released to criminal networks, starting in Australia. It surged in popularity over the past two years as other platforms were dismantled and underworld figures took up the devices based on referrals from trusted associates.

Mr Ayik, who fled Australia in 2010 and renounced his citizenship in 2019, was regarded as one of the two most influential distributors of An0m. He is wanted by NSW Police in relation to massive drug shipments and, on Tuesday, officers said he should be returned to his former home.

“We are working with our Commonwealth partners in relation to returning him to New South Wales to face charges,” NSW Police Deputy Commissioner David Hudson said.

“We’ve seen a number of our high-level crooks go to safe havens overseas and escape prosecution, and live a high life and still direct criminal enterprises from overseas, with assistance obviously from onshore.”

AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw urged Hakan Ayik to turn himself in. Credit:Rhett Wyman

The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes recently discovered Ayik’s location and new identity in Istanbul and revealed his suspected role as the founder of the “Aussie Cartel” of organised crime figures wielding major influence over drug importation into Australia from offshore locations.

AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw on Tuesday publicly urged Mr Ayik to turn himself in and protect his family because he may now be a target after inadvertently helping set up a vast number of his criminal peers.

“Given the threat probably he faces, he’s best off handing himself in to us as soon as he can,” Commissioner Kershaw said. “He’s essentially set up his own colleagues.”

Criminals needed to know an underground distributor to obtain an An0m device. They paid about $1700 for the handset and a six-month subscription, and $1250 for every six months after that. The amount was sometimes paid in cryptocurrency.

The app – able to send messages and files and perform some other advanced functions – was concealed within a calculator program on the modified phones, which could not make calls or perform other functions.

Commissioner Kershaw said it was an unprecedented operation that had netted some of Australia’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.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the operation was a “heavy blow” against organised crime, which has used encrypted communications to hamper authorities since the rise of the technology in recent years.

The Australian Federal Police-led operation arrested hundreds of alleged organised crime members nationwide.Credit:AFP

“The operation puts Australia at the forefront of the fight against criminals who peddle in misery and, ultimately, it will keep our communities and Australians safe,” Mr Morrison said.

The users, who police say were exclusively using it for criminal activity, trusted the platform and did not use code in their communications. They were brazen and detailed about their activities, sharing their plans for murders and photos of drug shipments.

Powerful laws introduced by the federal government in 2018 to target encryption enabled Australia’s contribution to the operation. After An0m was brought under FBI control, Australian police technical specialists developed a capability to decrypt and monitor the communications on the platform, essentially creating a secret “BCC” looping in authorities.

An0m users were warned of the platform’s shortcomings in a mysterious blog post earlier this year that urged users to “stay away from Anom if you value your privacy and safety”.

“They are compromised, liars and your data is running via USA – passed onto law enforcement and other entities,” wrote the author under the name ‘canyouguess67’ in the March post, which has been removed.

“Authorities could completely infiltrate every user’s devices as well as their operations and, [worst] of all, authorities would have the ability to decrypt and intercept their messages.“

Law enforcement agencies and 9000 officers from across the world became involved in coordinated operations linked to the An0m sting.

From 2019 onwards, intelligence gained from the An0m surveillance was used to help disrupt criminal activities and make about 100 arrests. State and territory police often carried out the arrests and raids, acting on the federal police tips, even if they did not know its origins in the highly sensitive operation.

Police estimate the volume of communication between crime figures on other shadowy platforms, especially Ciphr, is vastly bigger than the 20 million messages accessed globally on An0m. An0m is said to represent about 5 per cent of encrypted communications among criminals.

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