It sounds like the plot of a James Bond movie – but one of the biggest crime stingers in the world took down hundreds of gangsters after getting them to share texts with the FBI.
The bold scheme, codenamed Operation Trojan Shield, arrested more than 800 criminals around the world this week, with authorities attacking over £ 100 million in cash, cocaine shipments, assault rifles, luxury cars and motorcycles.
British gangsters were among those arrested after European authorities joined the US and Australia in a massive international bankruptcy and tracked the crooks on secretly placed encrypted phones for 18 months.
Police officers in 16 countries were able to spy on messages from Mafia groups, Asian crime syndicates and motorcycle gangs shared through the fake messaging app ANOM.
The incredible operation that thwarted gangland hits and drug deals was invented by the FBI and the Australian police over a “couple of beers” and even prevented mass murders.
FBI chief Calvin Shivers said the results were “staggering,” adding, “We have heard of not only the number of arrests and seizures, but over 100 life threats that have been mitigated.”
After a former drug trafficker was caught and launched to popularize the app, the stunning sting exposed text messages depicting die-hard criminals chatting freely over huge shipments of drugs.
Here’s the inside story of the covert mission that baffled the underworld.
Busy tech genius flooded the underworld with app
“As you know, some of the best ideas come over a couple of beers,” joked Australian Police Chief Reece Kershaw on Tuesday.
In 2018, Australian enforcers met with the FBI, which revealed that they had secured a rogue drug dealer who had developed an encrypted phone equipped with the bespoke ANOM app.
The spies paid him £ 70,000 and offered him a reduced jail term and persuaded the informant to flood the Australian criminal underworld with the devices, according to a court affidavit.
The catch, of course, was that FBI special agents and the Australian Federal Police could read each of the 27 million classified messages sent through the app.
The results were breathtaking. Every single device was found to have been used for criminal activity, with around 12,000 scammers believed to be hiding their plans from the law.
The devices have been used by 300 gangs in more than 100 countries – including some of the world’s greatest criminals, such as Hakan Ayik, Australia’s most wanted man.
Known as the “Facebook gangster”, the tattooed Ayik is often caught on social media but is reportedly on the run in Turkey and holed up in luxury with his Dutch wife.
“We are ready to receive the packages”
Incredible text messages from the US Department of Justice reveal smugglers brazenly debating plans to ship their goods around the globe.
One of them says: “I also have a cargo ship with a captain at my side who want to overturn the cargo when it leaves.”
Another shows an alleged drug dealer who, using the pseudonym Tom Ford, speaks about an apparent conspiracy to smuggle cocaine.
“We’re ready to have the package today, brother,” says Ford.
“Tell him that the two available addresses are the hotel and the workshop at the moment.
The gangs – including the Ndrangheta, a crime syndicate of the Mafia – also sent pictures of the huge drug deliveries themselves.
One photo shows Ford and its employees allegedly exchanging pictures of cocaine stones they were trying to bring from California to a car repair shop in Sydney.
“We were actually able to see photos of hundreds of tons of cocaine hidden in fruit shipments,” added Shivers.
“All they talked about was blows to each other”
The evidence – which even uncovered murder orders – was a huge coup for the police, who were previously in the “back pockets of organized crime”.
“They just talk about drugs, violence, mutual beatings, innocent people being murdered, a whole range of things,” Kershaw said.
He added that one murder plot included plans to attack a coffee shop with a machine gun while a family of five was also attacked.
It’s unclear why the surgery suddenly peaked this week, but suspicions arose.
In March, a tech blogger claimed the app was a “scam” and it was reportedly being shared with insecure servers in the US and Australia MailOnline.
“STAY AWAY FROM ANOM IF YOU VALUE YOUR PRIVACY AND SECURITY,” they wrote in a post that has now been deleted.
“YOU’RE COMPROMISED, LIARS AND YOUR DATA RUNS OVER THE USA.”
Australian officials also suggested that they must act quickly to disrupt dangerous conspiracies, and also because of legal limits on interception of communications.
Cocaine, luxury cars, weapons and drugs seized
More than 800 arrests were made worldwide in the raids this week – including in Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden for a joint operation with Europol.
In Australia, 224 people were detained when 4,000 officers sank in a night bust.
According to Europol, the police seized eight tons of cocaine, 22 tons of cannabis, two tons of amphetamine and methamphetamine, 250 firearms, 55 luxury vehicles and over 48 million dollars in various global currencies and cryptocurrencies.
The UK’s National Crime Agency said it carried out “multiple operations” as a result of the stab and that UK drug gangs and money launderers were among the criminals caught.
Matthew Donahue, deputy chief of operations at the US Drugs Agency, said of the cooperation with Europol: “Operation Trojan Shield and Europol Operation Greenlight not only show how transnational criminal organizations continue to use encrypted communications services for their own illegal gain, but also show them the commitment of law enforcement agencies to develop innovative strategies to counter this activity.
“These operations underscore the seriousness of the international drug threat and provide a solid foundation on which to build future investigations.
“As this operation clearly shows, cross-border organized crime is a global problem that requires a global solution, strong international partnerships and timely exchange of information, which are crucial tools in this fight.”