Authorities in Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Europe said on Tuesday that they had dealt a huge blow to organized crime after hundreds of criminals were tricked into using a messaging app secretly run by the FBI. Police said criminal gangs believed the encrypted app, called ANOM, was safe from sniffing when authorities for several months had actually been monitoring millions of messages about drug smuggling, money laundering and even planned killings.
The app was part of a worldwide sting called Operation Trojan Shield, which was led by the FBI and involved the US Drug Enforcement Agency, the European Union Police Agency Europol and law enforcement agencies in more than a dozen countries. Europol said police from a total of 1
About 9,000 officers have been deployed worldwide to make arrests and search more than 700 locations over the past 48 hours, according to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California. More than 32 tons of drugs – including cocaine, cannabis, amphetamine and methamphetamine – were seized along with 250 firearms and $ 48 million in various worldwide currencies, the FBI said. More than 50 secret drug laboratories have been dismantled – including one of the largest secret laboratories in German history – and 800 people have been arrested in total, including 500 in the last 48 hours, according to US officials.
“The results are astonishing,” said FBI Assistant Director Calvin Shivers on Tuesday morning at Europol’s headquarters in the Netherlands.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California dropped a charge Tuesday and charged 17 foreign defendants who administered or distributed the devices with counters. Eight of the defendants were taken into custody Monday night and the other nine are considered refugees, officials said.
“Operation Trojan Shield was an innovative approach to ongoing, evolving and complex problem enforcement that continues to face every day – how to infiltrate encrypted communications equipment used solely and exclusively for criminal activity,” said Suzanne Turner, Special Agent in charge of FBI’s San Diego Field Office.
Turner said criminals often use encryption to communicate under a “cloak of secrecy,” hampering law enforcement’s ability to detect crime before it happens. She said the investigation team was trying to exploit criminal companies’ need for encrypted devices, which she called a “significant vulnerability” for criminals.
The FBI said it supplied more than 300 criminal syndicates in more than 100 different countries with about 12,000 units. The French news agency AFP quoted Shivers as saying that the devices containing the ANOM app were distributed over nearly two years so agents could “monitor their communications.”
“ANOM’s distributors, administrators, and agents had so much confidence in the confidentiality of their devices that they openly marketed them to other potential users as designed by criminals for criminals,” said Randy Grossman, acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California. “But the units were actually operated by the FBI.”
Authorities in Australia said the app was installed on stripped-down mobile phones and that its popularity grew organically in criminal circles after it was guaranteed by some high-profile underworld figures described as “criminally influential.” Reuters reports that the gangs believed the system was secure because the phones had no other features such as voice or camera features and the app was encrypted. Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said the communication was rude with no attempt to hide criminal plans using passwords, according to the news agency.
“We have been in the pockets of organized crime,” Kershaw said. “Everything they talk about is drugs, violence, beatings against each other, innocent people being murdered.”
Australian authorities said they arrested 224 people and seized more than four tonnes of drugs and $ 35 million in an ongoing operation dating back three years. New Zealand police said they had arrested 35 people and seized millions of dollars worth of drugs and assets.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters it was a watershed moment that would keep the country’s society safer.
“Today, the Australian government, as part of a global operation, has struck a hard blow against organized crime,” Morrison said. “Not just in this country, but one that will echo around organized crime around the world.”
Australian Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said the sting, called Operation Ironside in Australia, was borne by a long-standing partnership between his agency and the FBI. He said they had closed six secret laboratories and stopped 21 death threats, including rescuing a family of five.
“We have arrested the alleged royalists behind these crimes, prevented mass shootings in the suburbs and frustrated serious and organized crime by seizing their poorly achieved wealth,” Kershaw said.
That. Superintendent Greg Williams, who heads a New Zealand police force fighting organized crime, said the sting was devised in 2018 after the FBI took down a previously secure app favored by criminals, Phantom Secure.
Williams said there was a gap left in the market that authorities helped fill with the ANOM app.
“We just can not speak loud enough about the FBI and the work they have done in the background here,” Williams said.
He said New Zealand was a small country and relied on the intelligence-gathering capabilities of its Five Eyes partners, which include the United States, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Swedish police prevented a dozen planned killings and believe they have arrested several “leading actors in criminal networks”, according to a statement from Linda Staaf, head of Sweden’s national criminal intelligence unit.
Finnish police said on Tuesday that nearly 100 people had been detained and more than 500kg of drugs confiscated along with dozens of weapons and cash worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
German authorities said on Tuesday that police had arrested more than 70 suspects and searched dozens of sites as part of the global breakdown. The raids carried out on Monday were largely in the state of Hesse, according to the Frankfurt prosecutor’s office.
Reuters news agency quoted the prosecution as saying police seized hundreds of pounds of drugs, more than 20 weapons, dozens of luxury cars and more than $ 250,000 in cash as well as IT equipment.
In March, Belgian police arrested dozens of people after cracking down on another encrypted chat system and seizing more than 17 tonnes of cocaine.
The latest operation went even further.
“The success of Operation Trojan Shield is the result of tremendous innovation, dedication and unprecedented international cooperation,” said Shivers.
Clare Hymes contributed to this report.