AFP-led ‘Operation Ironside’ bursts global-linked organised crime in drugs with encrypted messaging app

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By Neeraj Nanda

MELBOURNE, 8 June 2021: A joint global operation led by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) with America’s FBI, has burst an internationally connected organized crime with an encrypted app, ANoM, a world-leading capability to see encrypted communications used exclusively by organized crime. The encrypted communications – which allegedly included plots to kill, mass drug trafficking, and gun distribution – were decrypted from a platform covertly run by the FBI.

The revelations today came out in an early morning televised media conference by PM Scott Morrison, AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw, and FBI Legal Attaché US Embassy Anthony Russo from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices, Sydney.

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The Australian Prime Minister said the operation was a ‘heavy blow’ stuck against organized crime.

More than 4,000 members from the AFP and state and territory police have been involved in the execution of hundreds of warrants since 7 June 2021, under Operation Ironside, which covertly began three years ago. Operation Ironside led to the arrest of 224 offenders on 526 charges in every mainland Australian state. 3.7 tonnes of drugs, 104 weapons, $44,934,457 million in cash, and assets expected to run into the millions of dollars, have been seized under Operation Ironside since 2018.

The AFP also acted on 20 threats to kill, potentially saving the lives of a significant number of innocent bystanders, with intelligence referred to state police agencies that took immediate action. More arrests are expected domestically and offshore under a coordinated global response connected to Operation Ironside.

The AFP is also likely to seek extradition requests of a number of persons of interest living overseas. It comes as there have been tonnes of drugs and hundreds of arrests overseas. The AFP will allege offenders linked to the Australian-based Italian mafia, outlaw motorcycle gangs, an Asian crime syndicate, and Albanian organized crime are among those charged under Operation Ironside.

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 organized 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.
The FBI had access to a new app, named AN0M, and began running it without the knowledge of the criminal underworld.

The AFP provided the highly skilled technical staff, and the capability to decrypt and read encrypted communications in real-time, giving law enforcement an edge it had never had before.

AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw thanked the FBI for its cooperation, along with the 18 countries that worked with the AFP to maintain the integrity of the platform.

As part of the global operation, more than 9000 officers from law enforcement have deployed to the international efforts. Commissioner Kershaw acknowledged the significant resources provided by Australia’s state and territory police during the days of resolution.

“Today, Australia is a much safer country because of the extraordinary outcome under Operation Ironside,’’ Commissioner Kershaw said.

He said, “It highlights how devastatingly effective the AFP is when it works with local and global partners, and takes its fight against transnational organized crime offshore. This world-first operation will give the AFP, state, and territory police years of intelligence and evidence. There is also the potential for a number of cold cases to be solved because of Operation Ironside. However, tomorrow, and in the future, law enforcement will come up against serious challenges.

AN0M was an influential encrypted communications app but there are even bigger encrypted platforms that are being used by transnational and serious organized criminals targeting Australia. They are almost certainly using those encrypted platforms to flood Australia with drugs, guns and undermine our economy by laundering billions of dollars of illicit profit.

Organized crime syndicates target Australia because sadly, the drug market is so lucrative. Australians are among the world’s biggest drug takers. One of the causes behind domestic violence, sexual assault, neglect of children, and unspeakable tragedy, is illicit drugs. Our first responders, our teachers, and every Australian should be able to go to work and live in our communities without being harmed by an individual under the influence of dangerous drugs.

The app AN0M was installed on mobile phones that were stripped of other capability. The mobile phones, which were bought on the black market, could not make calls or send emails. It could only send messages to another device that had the organized crime app. Criminals needed to know a criminal to get a device.

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The devices organically circulated and grew in popularity among criminals, who were confident of the legitimacy of the app because high-profile organized crime figures vouched for its integrity.”

“These criminal influencers put the AFP in the back pocket of hundreds of alleged offenders. Essentially, they have handcuffed each other by endorsing and trusting AN0M and openly communicating on it – not knowing we were watching the entire time,” Commissioner Kershaw said.

FBI International Operations Division Legal Attaché for Canberra Anthony Russo said criminals around the world had long used encrypted criminal communications platforms to avoid law enforcement detection. The FBI, with our international partners, will continue to adapt to criminal behavior and develop novel approaches to bring these criminals to justice,” he said.
“We appreciate our long-standing partnership with the Australian Federal Police in the fight against transnational organized crime.”

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