Hundreds of underworld figures arrested in 'staggering' FBI encrypted phone sting
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Danny Kemp and with Andrew Beatty in Sydney
Police arrested more than 800 people worldwide in a huge global sting involving encrypted phones that were secretly planted by the FBI, law enforcement agencies said Tuesday.
Officers were able to read the messages of global underworld figures in around 100 countries as they plotted drug deals, arms transfers and gangland hits on the compromised ANOM devices.
The evidence from "Operation Trojan Shield" prevented around 100 murders and foiled several large-scale drug shipments, said officials from the FBI, the EU's police agency Europol and other countries as far afield as Australia.
"The results are staggering," FBI Assistant Director Calvin Shivers told reporters at Europol's HQ in The Netherlands.
He said the FBI had provided criminal syndicates in over 100 countries with the devices over the last 18 months "that allowed us to monitor their communications."
Europol said police from a total of 16 countries launched raids on the basis of evidence from the phones, around 12,000 of which were distributed worldwide.
"This information led over the last week to hundreds of law enforcement operations on a global scale from New Zealand to Australia to Europe and the USA, with impressive results," said Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, Deputy Director Operations at Europol.
"More than 800 arrests, more than 700 locations searched, more than 8 tonnes of cocaine."
Australian police said the supposedly hardened encrypted devices were handed out to operatives within the mafia, Asian crime syndicates, drug cartels and outlaw motorcycle gangs as part of the elaborate FBI-led plot.
In Australia alone, more than 200 people have been charged as part of the operation, which Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Tuesday had "struck a heavy blow against organised crime -- not just in this country, but one that will echo around organised crime around the world".
The operation began after global police work in the past two years disrupted two other major encrypted phone networks used by criminals, Encrochat and SkyGlobal.
"The closure of those two encrypted communication platforms created a significant void in the encrypted communication market," said New Zealand police.
To fill the void, "the FBI operated its own encrypted device company, called 'ANOM'," the New Zealand police added.
The FBI's Shivers said this enabled them to "turn the tables" on criminals.
"We were actually able to see photographs of hundreds of tonnes of cocaine that were concealed in shipments of fruit, we were able to see hundreds of kilos of cocaine that were concealed in canned goods," Shivers said.
According to unsealed court documents cited by US media outlet Vice, the FBI worked with insiders to develop and distribute AN0M devices through the Phantom Secure network of existing criminal customers, unloading 50 -- mostly to Australia -- as a "beta test."
’They came to us'
The devices are said to have had no email, call or GPS services and could only message other ANOM phones.
They could only be bought on the black market -- for around $2,000 -- and required a code from an existing user to access.
"They actually came to us seeking these devices," Shivers said.
Australian agencies helped get the phones in the hands of underworld "influencers" -- including an Australian fugitive drug boss on the run in Turkey -- in a bid to gain trust.
The cover appeared to be blown in March 2021 when a blogger detailed AN0M security flaws and claimed it was a scam linked to Australia, the United States and other members of the FiveEyes intelligence sharing network. The post was later deleted.
The Australian Federal Police said that as a result of the operation, a total of 224 people were now facing more than 500 charges in Australia alone, while six underground drug labs were shut down and firearms and Aus$45 million (US$35 million) in cash was seized.
"We allege they are members of outlaw motorcycle gangs, Australian mafia, Asian crime syndicates and serious and organised crime groups," federal police commissioner Reece Kershaw said.
New Zealand Police detective superintendent Greg Williams said 35 people had been arrested across the country.
Police in New Zealand seized methamphetamine, firearms, and millions of dollars in cash and assets during the operation.
ANOM's website -- which once offered "military grade" encryption services and devices with special features like "light and dark" display themes -- was unavailable Tuesday, with a message from authorities that the "domain has been seized."