Authorities in Australia, New Zealand and Europe said Tuesday they've dealt a huge blow to organized crime after hundreds of criminals were tricked into using a messaging app that was being secretly run by the FBI.
Police said criminal gangs thought the encrypted app called ANOM was safe from snooping when, in fact, authorities for months had been monitoring millions of messages about drug smuggling, money laundering and even planned killings.
The app was part of a worldwide sting called operation Trojan Shield, which was led by the FBI and involved the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the European Union police agency Europol and law enforcement agencies in more than a dozen countries.
"The results are staggering," FBI Assistant Director Calvin Shivers said Tuesday morning at Europol's headquarters in The Netherlands.
The French news agency AFP quoted Shivers as saying the FBI had provided criminal groups in more than 100 different countries with about 12,000 devices containing the ANOM app over almost two years, allowing agents to "monitor their communications."
Europol said police from a total of 16 countries had carried out raids sparked by evidence from the FBI-monitored smart phones.
"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," AFP quoted Europol's Deputy Director of Operations, Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, as saying on Tuesday. "More than 800 arrests, more than 700 locations searched, more than 8 tons of cocaine."
Authorities in Australia said the app was installed on stripped-back mobile phones and its popularity grew organically in criminal circles after it was vouched for by some high-profile underworld figures, described as "criminal influencers."
Australian authorities said they arrested 224 people and seized more than four tons of drugs and $35 million in an ongoing operation that dates back three years. New Zealand police said they had arrested 35 people and seized drugs and assets worth millions of dollars.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters it was a watershed moment that would keep the nation's communities safer.
"Today, the Australian government, as part of a global operation, has struck a heavy blow against organized crime," Morrison said. "Not just in this country, but one that will echo around organized crime around the world."
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said the sting, called Operation Ironside in Australia, was borne from a longstanding partnership between his agency and the FBI. He said they had shut down six clandestine laboratories and stopped 21 death threats, including saving a family of five.
"We have arrested the alleged kingmakers behind these crimes, prevented mass shootings in suburbs and frustrated serious and organized crime by seizing their ill-gotten wealth," Kershaw said.
Det. Superintendent Greg Williams, who leads a New Zealand police group fighting organized crime, said the sting was conceived in 2018 after the FBI took down a previous secure app favored by criminals, Phantom Secure.
Williams said that left a void in the market that authorities helped fill with the ANOM app.
"We just can't speak highly enough of the FBI and the work they have done in the background here," Williams said.
He said New Zealand was a small country and relied on the intelligence-gathering capabilities of its Five Eyes partners, which include the U.S., Australia, Canada and Britain.
German authorities said on Tuesday that police had arrested more than 70 suspects and searched scores of sites as part of the global crackdown. The raids carried out on Monday were largely in the state of Hesse, according to the Frankfurt public prosecutors office.
The Reuters news agency quoted the prosecutors office as saying police seized hundreds of pounds of narcotics, more than 20 weapons, dozens of luxury vehicles and more than $250,000 worth of cash, as well as IT equipment.