More than 800 suspected criminals have been arrested worldwide after being tricked into using an FBI-run encrypted messaging app, officials say.
The operation, jointly conceived by Australia and the FBI, saw devices with the ANOM app secretly distributed among criminals, allowing police to monitor their chats about drug smuggling, money laundering and even murder plots.
Officials called it a watershed moment.
Targets included drug gangs and people with links to the mafia.
Drugs, weapons, luxury vehicles and cash were also seized in the operation. This included eight tons of cocaine, 250 guns and more than $48m (£34m) in various worldwide currencies and cryptocurrencies.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the operation had “struck a heavy blow against organised crime” around the world.
Europol described Operation Trojan Shield/Greenlight as the “biggest ever law enforcement operation against encrypted communication”.
How did the ANOM sting work?
The FBI began operating its own encrypted device company called ANOM, and covertly distributed devices with the chat app among the criminal underworld via informants.
The devices were initially used by alleged senior crime figures, giving other criminals the confidence to use the platform.
“You had to know a criminal to get hold of one of these customised phones. The phones couldn’t ring or email. You could only communicate with someone on the same platform,” the police explained.
Australian fugitive drug trafficker Hakan Ayik was key to the sting, having unwittingly recommended the app to criminal associates after being given a handset by undercover officers, police said.
Dubbed the “Facebook gangster” by Australian media outlets, Ayik is seen in social media photographs with large tattoos and a muscular physique. Local outlets say he has been living in Turkey since evading arrest, living a luxury lifestyle with a Dutch wife.
Police said he was “best off handing himself into us” as soon as possible, as he may be in danger himself.
In total, some 12,000 encrypted devices were used by around 300 criminal syndicates in more than 100 countries.
What did the authorities uncover?
Officers were able to read millions of messages in “real time” describing murder plots, mass drug import plans and other schemes.
“All they talk about is drugs, violence, hits on each other, innocent people who are going to be murdered, a whole range of things,” said Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw.
He added that police were also able to prevent incidents of mass shootings.
In total, 224 people were arrested in the country, including members of outlaw motorcycle gangs, Australian mafia groups, Asian crime syndicates, and serious and organised crime groups.
Australian police said they also seized three tonnes of drugs and A$45m (£25m; $35m) in cash and assets, and acted on 20 “threats to kill”, potentially saving the lives of a “significant number of innocent bystanders”.
Authorities said their sting, which they called Operation Ironside, was the nation’s largest police operation and involved 4,000 police officers.
Some 9,000 police officers were involved worldwide.
“Knocking out their communications has been a key part of us disrupting the organised crime,” Commissioner Kershaw said.
He said the app access had given law enforcement “an edge that it had never had before”, but added the platform was just one of many messaging apps favoured by organised crime gangs.
New Zealand police said 35 people in the country had been arrested, and about NZ$3.7m (£1.9m, $2.7m) of assets seized.
“We believe the termination of these operations will have a significant impact on New Zealand’s organised crime scene,” National Organised Crime Group Director Detective Superintendent Greg Williams said.
In Europe, Europol’s deputy executive director Jean-Philippe Lecouffe described the operation as an “exceptional success”.
The FBI is expected to present more details later on Tuesday.