A fortnight before Christmas — as journalists from Fairfax Media secretly prepared to execute one of the riskiest and most compelling investigative projects in the Australian company’s long history — an anonymous extortionist and cyber-criminal calling himself Komrade broke cover.
The Weekend Australian can reveal that on December 10 last year Komrade sent an email — the opening gambit in a high-stakes blackmail bid for $US5 million in the untraceable bitcoin currency — to Cyrus Ahsani, the Monaco-based chief executive of his family-owned company, Unaoil.
Komrade, whose efforts in his correspondence to appear to be Russian would later strike expert analysts as contrived, quickly cut to the chase.
He advised Ahsani, who led a staff of more than 1000 and had interests in multi-billion-dollar oil and gas projects in the Middle East and Europe, that he held Unaoil’s data — specifically, tens of thousands of emails.
Komrade claimed he had paid $US50,000 to a hacker for the Unaoil data, but, according to Komrade, the massive trove of data was 100 times more valuable than a mere $US50,000 because a number of the emails indicated to him that the Ahsani family business bribed and corrupted industry players, and government officials big and small, with many millions of dollars. The first of what would be many emails from Komrade to the Ahsani family states: “I want to say to start, I am a businessman. This proposal is never personal. I do not know you or family. In my work I buy and sell information. This is what I do. Unaoil do bribes. This is clear.
“I have purchased much data about Unaoil and all transactions. I pay $50,000 USD for 40 GIG of data, includes email, many, many document. With email / documents you will go to prison. If you do not agree to pay our fee I will send this data to many agencies, wikileak, news, and my staff put on internet for everyone. I give it for free to the world. Like a gift.
“Then, you have 3 days to make a payment in bitcoin to address I supply. My advice: start looking how to convert USD into bitcoin soon. If you do not transfer quickly after you accept my deal I will release data. I had one company delay many days. Very bad news for them, bad news for me. No payment. But this is very serious.
“After you pay? You will never hear from me again. I will destroy data. Our transaction is over.”
Komrade followed up soon after, warning: “You, your father (Ata) and brother (Saman) will likely be extradited to the United States / UK / or Iraq to face prison or worse, as will your staff. The alternative. You pay us notification fee $5,000,000 USD in bitcoin.”
For the rest of December and then through January, February and March, the demands of Komrade — along with the escalating vows to destroy the family by leaking the Unaoil email archives to the media, unless the $US5m was paid — played out.
The Weekend Australian has received and reviewed the numerous communications in full, and verified the extortion campaign with a specialist negotiation adviser at a top international firm that advised the Ahsani family throughout the period. During this time, and unaware of any extortion, Fairfax Media journalists in Australia were communicating with their own shadowy and secretive figure — an unidentified source in Europe who had first reached out anonymously to The Age’s top investigative reporter, Nick McKenzie, last year.
The contact with McKenzie ultimately culminated in the blockbusting March-April 2016 Fairfax Media series about Unaoil and the Ahsani family, who were depicted inThe Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Huffington Post as being at the centre of “The Bribe Factory” and thoroughly corrupt.
In a hard-hitting endeavour lauded last month by Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood as a healthy sign of the future of the business, a special team of 14 Fairfax staff — including four investigative reporters — pulled together the product of months of work.
It was a powerful series of alleged corruption, spanning many countries and directly implicating Unaoil with top Western companies and some of their trusted staff, senior government officials and even a former Iraqi oil minister.
The Unaoil business now teeters precariously amid the fallout, with the termination of hundreds of jobs, while the Ahsani family in Monaco protests its innocence and vows to fight the allegations.
Agencies, from Britain’s Serious Fraud Office to the FBI and the Australian Federal Police, are involved to a varying extent in preliminary probes. Nobody from the Ahsani family has yet been charged, but it is a real prospect, say lawyers and journalists who have read some of the data.
This is a story, too, about the potential moral hazard for journalists and media outlets in an age when cyber criminals are increasingly acquiring vast sets of unlawfully obtained emails from companies, and putting them in the public arena. The Panama Papers data-dump may be a separate, recent example.
If extortionists, such as Komrade, are playing both sides of the fence — by presenting to media outlets as pure whistleblowers motivated to leak because of integrity issues while simultaneously running a criminal enterprise that uses the threat of leaking to the media as leverage against wealthy targets — the risks to journalism are inevitably heightened. Journalists doing their jobs without fear or favour may become unknowingly embroiled in cybercrime. The Weekend Australianis not suggesting any Fairfax journalists have acted inappropriately.
This is what the Ahsani family, which had not previously spoken publicly about its serious problems prior to its advisers contacting The Weekend Australian to disclose the extortion bid and put it on the record, believe happened in the Unaoil case. Chief operating officer Saman Ahsani: “The extortionists themselves said that they would leak to news organisations, including in Australia. The emails that the Fairfax Media group received are from the same batch of archived emails that were stolen. Those emails went up to a certain date. My view is that they are one and the same group.”
It is a proposition rejected by Fairfax Media, which is proud of its extensive work and insisted yesterday: “We do not have, and have never had, any evidence that any of our sources have engaged in extortion.”
(Archie’s note – but you have plenty of evidence that they f*cked up huge time, hey bro?)
The Age’s editor-in-chief, Mark Forbes, added: “Our primary source of the story is confidential. They have provided information not just to us but to the police to assist police inquiries. They did this to help us expose significant corruption. They never asked for money and their motive has been stated repeatedly — to expose corruption and prompt a thorough police investigation into Unaoil.
“In addition to the primary source, we had many other sources who helped us with our story, including staff in the companies that engaged in bribery with Unaoil. They have corroborated our reporting and, in some cases, are willing to assist police. The emails are true and accurate and exposed Unaoil’s involvement in bribery and corruption. They were reported fairly and accurately and with the help of multiple sources.”
Saman Ahsani, who said the emails from Komrade had been provided to British investigative authorities, did most of the corresponding with the unidentified extortionist between December and March.
An increasing urgency is evident in the tone of Komrade’s emails as Fairfax Media’s publication date looms. December 15: “Unaoil must purchase 5M USD bit-coin on exchange. You should do this quickly. If you f..k with us or you try and be smart guy like last email, we cease contact and release data. THIS YOU SHOULD BE CLEAR!”
December 17: “If you do not respond agree to our terms we will release your data publicly. Its VERY simple. We leak to Uk media first I think. The consequences for you huge.”
December 19: “You, I, we both know you not want pay. You are a snake. We will destroy you, business, family. Then what good is your money?”
December 20, Saman Ahsani to Komrade: “We are in the process of sending the initial payment to the first bitcoin address on the list. This is done as a sign of good faith and keeps to our word.”
The abuse and repeated warnings from Komrade of how, if he leaks it to the media, the family will be ruined and imprisoned continue for weeks. Ahsani, under expert advice, seeks to buy time in careful replies. He asks to see a complete list of the data and a picture of the hard drive, and he wants an assurance the family won’t be extorted repeatedly, while offering and making partial bitcoin payments to keep the correspondence going.
He tells Komrade that the demand of $US5m for the return of Unaoil’s commercial information will not be met.
Ultimately, Unaoil pays almost $US150,000 in separate bitcoin deposits as the horsetrading over access to the data and assurances about its security continues. A selection of brief excerpts from the many emails The Weekend Australian has seen in full is set out here:
January 15, Ahsani: “No one will pay for our data. It is old and not legally sensitive whatever your boss says. I repeat, the commitment we have made is only to maintain our reputation as we have lost our data and this makes us look unprofessional.”
February 3, Komrade: “We are done with the talking. Time for you to feel pain.”
February 26, Komrade: “I decide release to media. I think this is time for you. Understand risk.”
February 26, Ahsani: “We have honoured our word and have done what we said we would do. If you release our data you will not receive another payment.”
March 12: Komrade: “This absolute final message for you. If not accept keep f..king money. NO care. You understand that if you want to continue to f..k me consequences follow this.”
March 25, Komrade: “Is time now for you feel some pain.”
Five days later, on March 30, the publication online by Fairfax Media of its first articles about Unaoil and the Ahsani family began.
On April 18, Komrade emailed Unaoil again. Komrade advises in an email that the data was released, and tells Saman Ahsani: “We warn you. We say what we do. What good your money when you in prison? You make fee payment in 24 hr or full release.”
Nick McKenzie and Fairfax Media were unaware until contacted by The Weekend Australian of any suggestion of an extortion attempt on the Ahsani family. A Walkley Award-winning journalist, McKenzie wrote at the start of the Unaoil series: “The sources of this story never asked for money. What they wanted was for some of the wealthiest and most powerful figures in governments and companies across the globe to be exposed for acting corruptly, and with impunity, for years.”
It is certainly possible, as some at Fairfax now suspect, that someone other than the newspaper group’s sources, and with possession of a copy of the same Unaoil data, used it to extort the family while whistleblowers were releasing the data at about the same time to Fairfax Media.
McKenzie and his colleagues find it odd that having contacted the Ahsani family and their advisers for comment in the days before publication, the journalists were not told of any extortion. They were told in a firm legal letter that the emails they held were stolen.
“I didn’t realise until we started speaking with our advisers how incredibly commonplace cyber extortion is,’’ Saman Ahsani said.
“The colour drained from my face when they started getting very aggressive and referring to deep matters including our children.
“Our archives were stolen so we didn’t know what they had or didn’t have, and whether the emails were authentic or not. There were some things I didn’t recognise and some things that were said in the articles that I didn’t recognise.
“What I thought was strange was that in the article the reporters say this guy didn’t ask for any money, and they paint him as a person looking to shed light on terrible things, and here we are being extorted for four months.”
He said the strategy during the four months of the extortion bid “was about trying to get back the whole lot so we could analyse it ourselves”.
The family’s specialist negotiators told them at the time and through the period that it was standard practice to pay relatively small sums in bitcoins to keep an extortionist in dialogue.
Pressed about the allegations that his family business and staff routinely bribed government officials and others, he said: “All I can say is that these allegations are unfounded and we will defend ourselves very seriously.
“We are going to be fighting back and defending ourselves. We are not running away. We are facing up to this challenge. We are certainly considering legal actions. Forget about the Ahsani family, this has impacted the lives of many hundreds of hardworking Iraqis and expatriates.”
If the allegations against Unaoil are developed by anti-corruption agencies, family members, including Saman Ahsani, could face criminal prosecutions. The leaked archive of Unaoil emails, which are alleged to include direct evidence of the corruption, will still be potentially damning, irrespective of the extortion in the lead-up to the first revelatory articles being published.
For the media, thorny questions about the competing interests of investigative journalism, the public’s right to know, the security and value of confidential data showing alleged serious wrongdoing, and the roles and rights of sources are also unavoidable.
One of the Ahsani family’s lawyers, Rebekah Giles, a partner with the Kennedys law firm in Sydney, said: “The reporter has portrayed his source as a white hat who had no financial motivation but there is another view of the source that can be taken, one that is far darker. The implications for the reporter and Fairfax — both legally and reputationally — are significant.”
First published in The Australian 14 May 2016 and republished without any permission whatsoever. Murdoch’s mauler’s are forever pinching my stuff so its only fair (although to be fair Doubting Thomas never has). The full article can be accessed at http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/media/print/unaoil-fairfax-exposes-an-ethical-minefield-as-extortionist-calls-shots/news-story/34d0f03dc28958e1c737d4640b1b71b6