An FBI encryption-cracking app has exposed a global drug operation, with connections into Australia

AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw. Pictrure: Sitthixay Ditthavong
AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw. Pictrure: Sitthixay Ditthavong

A massive global police operation, involving the Australian Federal Police, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and European law enforcement agencies has resulted in the arrest of underworld figures involved in drug-running and international money laundering.

The breakthrough was as a result of the FBI creating an encrypted communications platform called ANoM which criminals believed was authentic and secure, as the devices to run the app were sold through resellers, often on the black market.

Investigators then patiently waited as devices containing the ANoM app slowly and "organically" grew in number around the world.

All the while, police could tap into the "back-end" of the platform and remotely monitor the criminal messages without the users knowing.

A suitcase containing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash were seized as part of Operation Ironside. Picture: AFP

A suitcase containing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash were seized as part of Operation Ironside. Picture: AFP

The ANoM app was installed on mobile phones that were stripped of other capability. The mobile phones could not make calls or send emails and could only send messages to another device that had the organised crime app.

Criminals became confident of the legitimacy of the app because high-profile organised crime figures vouched for its integrity.

"Essentially, they handcuffed each other by endorsing and trusting ANoM and openly communicating on it, not knowing we were watching the entire time," Commissioner Kershaw said.

Some 25 million messages were read by investigators.

Over 525 search warrants were executed across Australia as part of Operation Ironside, the biggest in the AFP's 40-year history. Around 4000 law enforcement officers across the country were involved in the operation.

In a media conference with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw said those arrested are among the most dangerous criminal in the country, so-called "kingpins" trafficking illicit drugs into the country on an "industrial scale".

Those arrested include members of outlaw motorcycle gangs, Mafia-connected Australians, those involved with Asian crime syndicates, and serious and organised crime members.

Multiple firearms were seized during Operation Ironside search warrants. Picture: AFP

Multiple firearms were seized during Operation Ironside search warrants. Picture: AFP

Police believe drugs have been coming into the country using these established covert criminal routes for some three years because Australia is seen as one of the most profitable countries in the world to sell illicit drugs.

"As of today, we have charged 224 alleged offenders, including 525 charges laid," Commissioner Kershaw said.

"[Police] have shut down six clandestine laboratories and acted on 21 threats to kill, including saving a family of five . . . seized 104 firearms and weapons, and almost $45 million in cash.

"These figures are likely to increase over the coming days.

"Collectively, these offenders are facing jail terms which could run into hundreds of years and some of the charges carry life imprisonment."

Commissioner Kershaw said this was a demonstration of the benefit of working closely with international agencies to take down connected organised crime networks and "inflict maximum damage" on those interests.

"This world-first operation will give the AFP, state and territory police years of intelligence and evidence," he said.

"There is also the potential for a number of cold cases to be solved because of Operation Ironside."

More to come.

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This story Encrypted app 'handcuffs' criminal networks as AFP swoops on local links to global drug network first appeared on The Canberra Times.