World

The Anom encrypted messaging app allowed police to monitor gangs around the world. PNG’s casino plan faces opposition from welfare groups. Nigeria bans Twitter after the president’s account is temporarily suspended. 

By Jonathan Pearlman.

Hundreds arrested in FBI, AFP sting

The Anom messaging app was part of an operation launched by the FBI and the Australian Federal Police against global underworld figures.
Credit: Oliver Morin / AFP

Great power rivalry

Britain: In 2008, a group of international bodies including the United Nations and the World Bank introduced a set of standardised accounting rules, which led to the release of detailed data by developing nations and smaller countries. Three economists – two in the United States, one in Denmark – analysed this data alongside information already available in wealthier countries and began to examine how companies moved their finances and profits between different countries.

Their landmark study released in 2018, “The Missing Profits of Nations”, revealed the extent to which large multinational companies were shifting profits to tax havens. It found almost 40 per cent of multinational profits were shifted to tax havens, reducing total global tax revenue by about 10 per cent.

Last weekend, the world’s wealthiest nations began trying to claw some of this money back. A meeting of the Group of Seven advanced economies in London committed to introducing a global minimum tax rate of at least 15 per cent. It also agreed to impose extra taxes on about 100 large multinational companies by assessing where they made their money, rather than where they located their head offices for tax purposes.

The deal was hailed by Britain’s chancellor, Rishi Sunak, as “a truly historic agreement” that will create a fairer international tax system.

The next step will be to reach a deal with the Group of 20 countries that includes China, India and Australia, and then to support discussions led by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which negotiates tax arrangements with about 140 countries.

But questions remain. Some tax experts have already spotted loopholes. And some critics say the proposed rate is too low. US President Joe Biden, who helped to push for the deal, had wanted a rate of 21 per cent, particularly as he plans to lift America’s own tax rate. Gabriel Zucman, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who co-wrote the 2018 study, said the rate should be at least 25 per cent, describing the deal as “historic, inadequate & promising”.

The neighbourhood

Papua New Guinea: A deal to build the first casino in Papua New Guinea as part of a major development in Port Moresby has been approved by the national gaming regulator despite concerns it could lead to money laundering and gambling-related social problems.

The casino is part of a proposed development on the Paga Hill headland that also includes plans for a marina, a hotel, a convention centre, an aquarium, a museum and 1000 apartments.

Clemence Kanau of the National Gaming Control Board said the authority supported the casino as a way to boost employment, saying the aim was to attract foreign tourists.

“I see benefits enormously,” he told ABC News. “If the casino comes on stream, we expect employment in this country, [which] is a problem at the moment, we have very high unemployment rate.”

But the proposal was criticised by church and welfare groups, which said a casino could cause family breakdowns and gambling-related mental health problems.

“We believe that in the long run, this will bring negative effects,” Reverend Joseph Walters, a church group leader, told The Post-Courier.

“What benefit or advantages will it bring to the entire population, or will it add to the misery, the struggles and the hardships they are going through with the downturn in the economy?”

Transparency International PNG, an anti-corruption organisation, said it was concerned the casino could lead to money laundering and a weakening of the gaming regulator.

Democracy in retreat

Nigeria: Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, has imposed a national ban on Twitter after the platform deleted a tweet by him that appeared to threaten violence against a militant group in the country’s south-east.

The government announced the decision on Twitter and accused the platform of “undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence”. It said it will now require all social media and streaming operators to be licensed.

The move followed a tweet by Buhari that condemned attacks blamed on the Eastern Security Network, the militant arm of an outlawed group that supports Biafran independence. The tweet referred to the nation’s brutal civil war from 1967 to 1970 in which the government ended the secession by the Igbo people and threatened a harsh response against “those misbehaving today”.

Buhari, a brigade major during the war, wrote: “Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.”

Twitter deleted the post after deeming it abusive and suspended Buhari’s account for 12 hours.

Nigeria, a nation of 220 million people, has an estimated 40 million Twitter users. Many have reportedly begun using virtual private networks, or VPNs, to bypass the ban.

On Tuesday, Gbenga Sesan, of Paradigm Initiative, a Lagos-based organisation that promotes digital use among young people, told BBC News: “Guess what? The only people who have been muted right now appear to be the government themselves.”

Spotlight: Police set up criminal app

Australia: From 2018 to 2020, several encrypted messaging services that had been popular with organised criminals – including Phantom Secure and Sky Global – were shut down after being targeted by law-enforcement agencies. But a new service quickly appeared, called Anom, which was available as a pre-installed app on a device that could not make phone calls. It cost $2000 to $4000 for a six-month subscription and was typically available only to those referred by an existing user.

Anom, it was revealed this week, was part of an operation launched by the FBI and the Australian Federal Police. The app was promoted via a paid collaborator, who had previously marketed encryption devices to criminal figures, and it quickly proved popular.

During the 18-month operation, the app was used on about 12,000 devices in 90 countries, mostly in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Australia. According to police, who revealed the sting after an FBI court filing was unsealed on Monday, authorities intercepted 27 million messages in 45 languages and uncovered 21 murder plots, shut down six drug laboratories, and seized more than 38 tonnes of cocaine, cannabis, amphetamine and drug precursors, as well as $US48 million in various currencies and 250 firearms. More than 800 people were arrested, including 224 in Australia. Further arrests are expected.

Authorities said they expected payback against those such as Hakan Ayik, a suspected former Sydney-based drug trafficker who allegedly promoted the app to those in his network. He is reportedly now in Turkey.

On Tuesday, AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw told reporters: “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.” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 12, 2021 as "FBI, AFP sting nets hundreds of alleged criminals worldwide".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.