800 arrested in mega global crime sting; 100 lives saved: Europol, FBI

The Hauge, Netherlands: More than 800 persons were arrested worldwide in a massive global sting employing encrypted phones that were discreetly placed by the FBI, according to law enforcement officials.

Cops in 16 nations were able to read a communication from global criminal figures as they organized drug sales, gun transfers, and gangland hits on the hacked ANOM devices.

As part of Operation "Trojan Shield," Mafia groups, Asian crime syndicates, motorcycle gangs, and other organized crime syndicates around the world were all monitored via poisoned phones.

According to them, the sting, which was devised jointly by Australia and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, saved around 100 killings, disrupted many large-scale drug shipments, and resulted in the seizure of guns and cash.

"The results are staggering," FBI Assistant Director Calvin Shivers told reporters at the European Union's police agency Europol's headquarters in The Netherlands.

Over the previous 18 months, the FBI has given criminal syndicates in over 100 nations gadgets "that allowed us to monitor their communications," according to Shivers.

Europol praised the "outstanding" operation, which saw roughly 12,000 ANOM devices sent around the world to criminals who thought they were secretly conversing.

"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," said Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, Deputy Director Operations at Europol.

"More than 800 arrests, more than 700 locations searched, more than eight tonnes of cocaine."

According to Europol, police recovered 22 tonnes of cannabis, two tonnes of methamphetamine, 250 guns, 55 luxury vehicles, and over $48 million in various currencies and cryptocurrencies.

'A powerful blow' 

The allegedly hardened encrypted gadgets were distributed to agents within the mafia, Asian crime syndicates, drug cartels, and outlaw motorcycle gangs as part of an extensive FBI-led plot, according to Australian authorities.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Tuesday that the government had "hit a major blow against organized crime — not only in this nation but around the world."

The operation began after international police efforts broke two other major encrypted phone networks used by criminals, Encrochat and SkyGlobal, in the previous two years.

"The closure of those two encrypted communication platforms created a significant void in the encrypted communication market," said New Zealand police.

To fill the void, "the FBI operated its own encrypted device company, called 'ANOM'", the New Zealand police added.

According to Shivers of the FBI, this allowed them to "turn the tables" on criminals.

"We were actually able to see photographs of hundreds of tonnes of cocaine that were concealed in shipments of fruit, we were able to see hundreds of kilos of cocaine that were concealed in canned goods," Shivers said.

Australia announced that more than 200 persons had already been charged, demonstrating the sting's huge global scope.

As a result of the operation, Sweden announced it had arrested 155 people, Germany had apprehended 70 individuals, the Netherlands had detained 49, and New Zealand had detained 35.

According to Dutch authorities, the majority of the 27 million ANOM messages seized by the trap were in Dutch, German, and Swedish.

"Criminals assumed that the service was safe and touted it among themselves as the platform you should use, because it would be absolutely reliable. Nothing could have been further from the truth," Dutch police said in a statement.

'They came to us'

According to previously revealed court documents, the FBI collaborated with insiders to build and deploy ANOM devices through the Phantom Secure network of existing criminal customers, shipping 50 of them as a "beta test" to Australia.

The gadgets were alleged to be unable to send an email, make phone calls, or use GPS, and could only communicate with other ANOM phones.

They were only available on the black market for roughly $2,000 and required a code from a previous user to use.

"We didn't hand them out, people actually came to us seeking those devices," Shivers said.

In order to develop trust, Australian officials assisted in getting the phones into the hands of underworld "influencers," including an Australian fugitive drug leader on the run in Turkey.

When a blogger disclosed ANOM security weaknesses and claimed it was a hoax tied to Australia, the United States, and other members of the FiveEyes intelligence-sharing network in March 2021, the cover was exposed. Later, the post was taken down.

The website of ANOM, which once promised "military-grade" encryption services and devices with unique features like "bright and dark" display themes, went down Tuesday, with police claiming the "domain has been seized."

250 arrested in Sweden alone

Some 250 people were arrested in Sweden and Finland in the global sting on organized crime using planted encrypted phones, with only Australia registering more arrests.

Out of a total of over 800 arrests across 16 countries, 155 arrests were tied to Swedish investigations and another 100 were arrested in Finland. Australia said it had charged more than 200 people.

"Yesterday, early in the morning, the Swedish police performed one of the most extensive strikes ever in intelligence-led police operations against violent crime and drug networks," Linda Staaf, head of intelligence at the Swedish police, told reporters.

On Monday, 70 people were arrested in Sweden and another five in Spain, in addition to another 80 Swedish arrests tied to the operation, Staaf told the press conference organized by Europol in The Hague.

"Many of them (were) persons with essential roles and heavy influence on the drug market. Those who instigate murders and violence, by shootings and explosions, right in the middle of the Swedish society," Staaf said.

Sweden has for years struggled to counter a rise in crime tied to criminal gangs, which has resulted in a spike of fatal shootings and bombings in an otherwise peaceful country.

Using phones planted by the US FBI, law enforcement officers were able to read the messages of global underworld figures in around 100 countries as they plotted drug deals, arms transfers, and gangland hits on the compromised ANOM devices.

Of the total 12,000 ANOM users, Swedish police had access to about 1,600 accounts and eventually honed in on around 600 people, according to the police.

Using this information, Staaf said Swedish police had been able to "prevent more than 10 planned murders within Sweden."

Finnish police meanwhile said in a statement on Tuesday they made almost 100 arrests and seized "more than 500 kilos of drugs, dozens of weapons and hundreds of thousands of euros in cash," during extensive raids carried out as part of the operation.

The raids included a major seizure of cannabis and machine guns in the capital region, as well as a workshop in the southern town of Tampere "where 3D printers were being used to manufacture firearms components," police said.

In Nordic neighbor Norway, a total of seven arrests had been made.

Police in many countries had already been able to benefit from the June 2020 infiltration of the Encrochat network, which was also widely used by criminals.

This also leads to a wave of arrests, and Staaf described it as a "game-changer in combatting serious violent crime."

100 lives saved from 'staggering crime' says FBI

More than 100 "threats to life" were prevented by a huge global crime sting involving encrypted phones that were secretly planted by law enforcement agencies, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation said Tuesday.

"Over the last 18 months, the FBI provided criminal organizations with over 300 encrypted devices in over 100 countries that allowed us to monitor their communications," FBI Assistant Director Calvin Shivers told reporters at Europol's HQ in The Hague.

"Not only have we heard about the number of arrests and the number of seizures, but over 100 threats to life that were mitigated," added Shivers.

This story has been updated and wrapped. 

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