Hundreds of arrests have been made as a result of the operation dubbed ‘the sting of the century’ in which the FBI and Australian police have been secretly reading a secure chat app popular with organized crime for several years, leading them to hundreds suspected organised crime figures in 18 countries, various media report.
“Operation Ironside began almost three years ago and is the Australian component of a long-term, international, covert investigation. The FBI and AFP targeted the dedicated encrypted communications platform, which was used exclusively by organised crime.
After working in close partnership on Operation Safe Cracking to take down the encrypted platform provider Phantom Secure, the AFP and FBI worked together to fill the vacuum,” AFP press report said.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) said that criminals have been using the supposedly highly secure encrypted chat app ANOM – increasingly popular in criminal circles- installed on mobile phones bought on the black market and stripped of all other functions. But the app was covertly run by the FBI and Australian police helped to decrypt the encrypted communications, which allegedly included plots to kill, mass drug trafficking and gun distribution.
“These criminal influencers put the AFP in the back pocket of hundreds of alleged offenders. The operation inflicted “maximum damage” on organized crime,” AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw said.
Unsealed U.S. court records show that the FBI, in what was dubbed ‘Operation Trojan Shield’ by the bureau, worked on “exploiting ANOM by inserting it into criminal networks.”
“Agents secretly released into the market the app designed to attach a secret master key to every message sent thought it, allowing agents to decrypt and store the message as it is transmitted,” the documents say.
FBI International Operations Division Legal Attaché for Canberra, Anthony Russo, thanked his Australian colleagues, saying that criminals around the world had long used encrypted criminal communications platforms to avoid law enforcement detection.
“Over the years, we have learned that working together is not just the best option – it is the only option. The FBI, with our international partners, will continue to adapt to criminal behaviour and develop novel approaches to bring these criminals to justice. We appreciate our long standing partnership with the Australian Federal Police in the fight against transnational organised crime,” said Russo.
The AFP sting has led to 224 arrests of suspects linked to Australian-based Italian mafia, Asian and Albanian crime syndicates, as well as motorcycle gangs. In New South Wales (NSW) state alone, police detained 35 people, seized 27 guns, including a 50-caliber sniper rifle, and significant quantities of cocaine, cannabis, and MDMA.
“Officers thwarted 21 murder plots, including of a family of five, shut down six drug labs, seized 104 pieces of firearms and other weapons, and nearly $45 million in cash. Roughly 3.7 tons of drugs were confiscated as well,” Kershaw said, adding that police has also confiscated a number of luxury sports cars, including a Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, and Bentley.
As part of the same operation, New Zealand Police arrested 35 people and seized $3.7 million in assets, including drugs, firearms, and vehicles.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the operation a “watershed moment” in the country’s law enforcement history, adding that the success of Ironside will “echo around organized crime around the world.”