ANOM: Australian police arrest 200 in global crackdown on organised crime

8 June 2021, 11:29 | Updated: 8 June 2021, 11:37

Australian Federal Police deputy commissioner Nigel Ryan speaks to the media
Australian Federal Police deputy commissioner Nigel Ryan speaks to the media. Picture: PA

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Hundreds of criminals have been arrested after they were tricked into using a messaging app that was being secretly run by the FBI.

Police in Australia and New Zealand said criminal gangs thought the encrypted app called ANOM was safe from snooping.

In fact, for months authorities were monitoring millions of messages about drug smuggling, money laundering and even planned killings.

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The app was part of a worldwide sting called Operation Trojan Shield, led by the FBI and involving the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the European Union police agency Europol and law enforcement agencies in more than a dozen countries.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the operation as a "heavy blow against organised crime" and "will echo around organised crime around the world".

Europol called it the "biggest ever law enforcement operation against encrypted communication".

The FBI is expected to reveal more details on Tuesday.

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 prime minister Scott Morrison
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison. Picture: PA

Police in Australia have arrested 224 people and seized more than four tons of drugs and 35 million US dollars (£24.7 million) in an ongoing operation that dates back three years.

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 organised crime by seizing their ill-gotten wealth," Mr Kershaw said.

New Zealand police said they had arrested 35 people and seized drugs and assets worth millions of dollars.

Detective Superintendent Greg Williams, who leads a New Zealand police group fighting organised crime, said the sting was conceived in 2018 after the FBI took down a previous secure app favoured by criminals, Phantom Secure.

He 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," Mr Williams said.