An international mega-operation against organized crime has culminated in the arrest of more than 800 suspects and the seizure of millions of euros and property, mostly in Australia. An FBI-designed application that infiltrated communications between criminals was essential.

The operation against organized crime, which lasted for three years, culminated in “more than 800 arrests, 700 searches and eight tons of cocaine seized” around the world, “with impressive results”, announced the Deputy Director of Europol, Jean- Philippe Lecoufe, at a press conference. According to the BBC, the global onslaught took place in 18 countries across Europe, Asia, North America, South America and the Middle East. For the success of the investigation, the use of an application created by the FBI and used since 2018 to track criminal gangs was essential.

Operation Ironside, which involved 9,000 agents (4,000 in Australia alone), was described by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as a “heavy coup against organized crime” in the country, where around 224 people were arrested and six clandestine laboratories were closed in 525 searches, which “will echo throughout the world”. The detainees are suspected of being part of motorcycle gangs, the Australian and Asian mafias and “serious and organized crime groups”, revealed, in a press conference, the Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Reece Kershaw, recalling that the Australian illegal market is attractive because of the high price of drugs – the suspects now arrested will have trafficked narcotic product into the country “on an industrial scale”. Since 2018 to date, Australian authorities have seized a total of 3.7 tonnes of drugs, 104 firearms and around 45 million Australian dollars (28.65 million euros).

On the New Zealand side, the police described the operation as “the most sophisticated in the world against organized crime” and confirmed the arrest of 35 suspects of crimes in the country, as well as the seizure of millions of euros, drugs, cars and boats.

FBI application spied on criminals

At the foundation of the success of the global megaoperation was the use of the AN0M application, a popular messaging service among organized crime gangs, which was designed by the US federal investigation agency to access encrypted communications (secret conversations that can only be read by whoever has the key to decrypt the data) used exclusively by these groups.

According to the New Zealand and Australian Police, the FBI began operating its own encrypted messaging application after dismantling two other encryption services. This was followed by the distribution of devices with this platform through the criminal underworld, allowing access to millions of messages in “real time” describing murder plots, drug trafficking plans and weapons distribution. “They only talked about drugs, violence, confrontations, innocent people who were going to be murdered, a number of things,” Kershaw detailed, adding that, in the Australian case, the FBI’s appeal allowed them to avoid mass shootings.

The devices were initially used by senior criminals, who inadvertently gave others the confidence to use the service. One of them was Australian drug dealer Hakan Ayik, described as a key point in the FBI’s scheme, who recommended the application after receiving a device from undercover agents. “You had to know a criminal to get one of these personalized mobile phones, which didn’t ring or send e-mails. You could only communicate on the platform,” explained the Australian police.