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Mission Impossible VII: Operation Ironside

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Roar writer Laura Saracino on Operation Ironside and the importance of transnational cooperation for common security threats.

Reading the headline “Operation Ironside” in a real-life newspaper feels strange. It could be the perfect title for a thriller book or movie. In fact,  the story behind would work well as the plot to the next James bond film.

What is even more exciting is that Operation Ironside is real, the accomplishments were shared over the past days on the social pages of Europol and the Australian federal police department.

AN0M, an app designed to infiltrate the underworld, was placed on the market in 2018, a “bold move” said BBC technology reporter Zoe Kleinman. The app became popular among criminals as it was secure, encrypted, and “closed” to the extent that subscribers started to use it as the main (and sometimes the only) communication channel. The people involved spoke freely of their plans and actions, correlating the conversations with pictures, direct information, and real names, without encryptions.

Europol gained insight by smartphones with only that app installed and the devices became the sole channel for outlaw communication networks, as sponsored by “criminal influencers”, key figures who played a role in the success of the app. Most notably, Hakan Ayik, a notorious criminal in Australia recommended the platform to other associates. The trust was built upon the registration system possible only by entering a security code shared between new subscribers and existing users, similar to the invitation mechanisms behind the platform Clubhouse).

The app became increasingly popular. Something had to be done to implement the idea into practice before the true nature of the app was uncovered by criminals.

A transnational sting operation that saw Europol, the FBI, and many other investigative departments from across the world take the lead in a risky operation to uncover criminal networks.

Once people got arrested, confidential information on the operation was disclosed and police and federal departments were allowed to proudly show their accomplishments. In knowing that security organisations are always a step behind cybercriminals, and the overall agreement rates towards the armed forces are rather low, this mass a massive achievement.

Operation Ironside is an excellent example of a multilateral strategy implemented into action, a great orchestration of an act of international cooperation. The collaborative relationship between different autonomous entities with a shared objective is difficult enough for describing relationships between individuals and the trade-off everyone makes to exercise one’s own freedoms respecting others’ at the same time, let alone when national and supranational entities are involved. The challenges to tackle are huge, as they comprehend multi-layered team-ups and agreements involving States and nations with different priorities and agendas. Thus, actions like this become even more crucial in the current scenario where nations, as well as supranational organisations, are challenged unprecedently.

The whole world witnessed the extreme difficulty the pandemic posed to the finding of a unified strategy against the spread of the disease over the past years, as well as the unresolved environmental crisis that is still missing a unified front for effective and concrete measures. In light of this, when actions such as Operation Ironside are accomplished, they became even more important than the single problem they solved. They become a model for future community actions across borders, showing that geographical distance and cultural difference increase the prospect of success if implemented correctly. They could be fruitful in encouraging states themselves to take their own responsibilities in a much more radical way than in the past.

This example of worldwide cooperation is evidence that there is no challenge impossible to overcome for the successful outcome of a greater good. Balancing different priorities is possible when a common goal is identified. The only question is what issues are so important they require transnational security cooperation: is there such a thing as second-class problems not worth the effort? What if we challenge the idea of the requisites that call for action needs to show to be taken seriously even before starting to talk about international actions? Is cooperation really international or more western-driven?

Those questions need to be addressed to make sure the discourse around international cooperation is meaningful and down-to-earth, and the best way to do so is to keep the discussion alive, to highlight examples such as Operation Ironside, while being on the lookout for the next one, creating and recognising the favourable conditions.


5'2 of curls, optimism and loud laughs.
Fond of humans and always chatting with everyone about this and that.



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