Police forces in 16 countries announced yesterday (Tuesday) the arrest of more than 800 people suspected of drugs and arms trafficking in the biggest sting operation in history.
The coordinated raids in Europe, Australia and the Americas followed a two-year operation in which the FBI and the Australian Federal Police deliberately distributed encrypted telephones to organised crime groups in order to track their movements.
“The results are staggering,” Calvin Shivers, an assistant director of the FBI, said at a press conference at the Europol headquarters in The Hague.
Mr Shivers and his European colleagues said the raids averted around 100 potential gangland murders and netted eight tons of cocaine, 22 tons of cannabis, two tons of synthetic drugs, 250 guns, 55 vehicles and more than $48 million (pounds 34 million) in cash and cryptocurrencies.
Operation Trojan Shield has its roots back in 2017, when the FBI in San Diego began investigating a secure messaging system called Phantom Secure that they believed was marketed exclusively to organised crime groups.
The arrest of Vincent Ramos, Phantom Secure’s chief executive, in Las Vegas in 2018, and the shutdown of a similar network called Sky Global, created what New Zealand police called “a significant void in the encrypted communication market”.
An anonymous informant - a former drug trafficker who had distributed both apps to criminals - offered investigators a design for a next-generation system, according to an affidavit filed by an FBI agent and first published by Vice News.
Rather than wait for criminals to fill the niche, the FBI entered the market themselves.
In 2018, its agents met counterparts from Australia, one of the most popular markets for Phantom Secure.
Together, they developed a messaging app called ANOM. It resembled WhatsApp, but could only be used on specially hard-encrypted smartphones that carried no call capability, GPS, email or other apps.
Australian agencies managed to get 50 devices into the hands of some of the most influential crime bosses in the world, including Hakan Ayik, the country’s most wanted fugitive.
It immediately paid off. “One hundred per cent of ANOM users in the test phase used ANOM to engage in criminal activity”, the affidavit said. And the phones’ popularity grew by word of mouth.
“The devices organically circulated and grew in popularity among criminals, who were confident of the legitimacy of the app because high-profile organised crime figures vouched for its integrity,” Australian police said.
Eventually, 11,800 devices were being used on every continent. In Europe, they proved especially popular in Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and Serbia.
They generated millions of messages discussing drug deals, arms shipments and gangland hits. Screenshots of conversations released by police included references to cocaine allegedly stuffed into French diplomatic envelopes in South America.
The programme was nearly compromised in March this year when a blogger detailed ANOM security flaws and claimed it was a scam linked to the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) yesterday said they had arrested 224 people on 525 charges, shut down six underground drug labs, and seized AU$45 million (pounds 25 million) in cash, 3.7 tons of narcotics, and 104 firearms.
Reece Kershaw, AFP commissioner, warned Ayik, who has been on the run for at least 10 years, to turn himself in rather than fall victim to a mob hit, after he unwittingly helped spread ANOM to his associates.
He is suspected of being a major player in Australia’s illegal narcotics trade and is believed to have been hiding in Turkey since he evaded an Interpol arrest warrant in 2010.
In Sweden, police said they had thwarted at least 10 murders and arrested 155 suspects including several “leading figures in the criminal network, who have had a major influence in the drugs market, and at the same time have ordered violent acts in the form of, for instance, shootings.”
New Zealand Police said they had arrested 35 people on 900 “serious drug-dealing, money-laundering and other conspiracy-type charges”.
In Germany, 70 people were arrested on suspicion of trafficking in drugs and weapons and 150 properties were raided across the country, mostly around Frankfurt, the country’s financial centre, and the city of Essen in the north west.
The UK National Crime Agency said it had carried out “multiple operations” as a result of the sting, but did not give details of arrests.
A Dutch official said 49 people were arrested in the Netherlands.