Criminal gangs thought an encrypted app was safe from snooping when, in fact, authorities for months had been monitoring millions of messages.
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Criminal gangs divulged plans for moving drug shipments and carrying out killings on a messaging app secretly run by the FBI, law enforcement agencies said Tuesday, as they unveiled a global sting operation they said dealt an “unprecedented blow” to organized crime in countries around the world.
The operation known as Trojan Shield led to police raids in 16 nations. More than 800 suspects were arrested and more than 32 tons of drugs — including cocaine, cannabis, amphetamines and methamphetamines — were seized along with 250 firearms, 55 luxury cars and more than $148 million in cash and cryptocurrencies.
The seeds of the sting were sown when law enforcement agencies earlier took down two encrypted platforms, EncroChat and Sky ECC, that had been used by criminal gangs to organize drug trafficking and underworld hits. With the gangs in the market for a new means of communication, the FBI stepped in with a covertly developed app called ANOM that was installed on modified mobile phones. Over the past 18 months, the FBI provided phones via unsuspecting middlemen to more than 300 gangs operating in more than 100 countries.
Intelligence gathered and analyzed “enabled us to prevent murders. It led to the seizure of drugs that led to the seizure of weapons. And it helped prevent a number of crimes,” Calvin Shivers, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, told a news conference in The Hague, Netherlands.
The operation — led by the FBI with the involvement of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the European Union police agency Europol and law enforcement agencies in several countries — dealt “an unprecedented blow to criminal networks, and this is worldwide,” said Dutch National Police Chief Constable Jannine van den Berg.
Australian Federal Police Commander Jennifer Hearst called it “a watershed moment in global law enforcement history.”
The ANOM app became popular in criminal circles as users told one another it was a safe platform. All the time, police were looking over the shoulders of criminals as they discussed hits, drug shipments and other crimes.
“There was a void that was created by a lack of these encrypted platforms,” Shivers said, of the initial move to take down apps previously used by gangs. “So that created an opportunity for collaboration with our international partners, to not only develop the specific tool but also to develop the process of gathering the intelligence and disseminating the intelligence.”
Law enforcement agencies from Sweden to New Zealand described the operation as having a significant impact.
Swedish police prevented a dozen planned killings and believe that they have arrested several “leading actors in criminal networks,” according to a statement from Linda Staaf, the head of Sweden’s national criminal intelligence unit.
Finnish police said Tuesday that nearly 100 people have been detained and more than 500 kilograms (half a ton) of drugs confiscated, along with dozens of guns and cash worth hundreds of thousands of euros (dollars). In Germany, the general prosecutor’s office in Frankfurt said that more than 70 people were arrested Monday and drugs, cash and weapons were also seized.
In Australia, authorities said they arrested 224 people and seized more than four tons of drugs and $35 million. New Zealand police said they had arrested 35 people and seized drugs and assets worth millions of dollars.
“Today, the Australian government, as part of a global operation, has struck a heavy blow against organized crime,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters. “Not just in this country, but one that will echo around organized crime around the world.”
European police last year delivered a major blow to organized crime after cracking an encrypted communications network, known as EncroChat, used by criminal gangs across the continent.
In March, Belgian police arrested dozens of people after cracking another encrypted chat system and seizing more than 17 tons of cocaine.
The latest operation went even further.
“The success of Operation Trojan Shield is a result of tremendous innovation, dedication and unprecedented international collaboration,” Shivers said. “And the results are staggering.”
Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand. Associated Press writers Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Jari Tanner in Helsinki, and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.