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FBI-run messaging app tricks gangs, leads to hundreds of arrests in global sting

A cardboard box is packed with bundles of cash.
A box containing large amounts of New Zealand cash was discovered during a police raid as part of Operation Trojan.
(New Zealand Police)

A global sting involving an encrypted communications platform developed by the FBI has sparked a series of raids and arrests around the world, delivering “an unprecedented blow” to crime gangs, authorities said Tuesday.

Operation Trojan Shield involved police swoops in 16 nations. More than 800 suspects were arrested, and over 32 tons of drugs — cocaine, cannabis, amphetamines and methamphetamines — were seized along with 250 firearms, 55 luxury cars and more than $148 million in cash and cryptocurrencies. An indictment unsealed Tuesday in San Diego named 17 foreign distributors charged with racketeering conspiracy.

Australian Federal Police Commander Jennifer Hearst called the operation “a watershed moment in global law enforcement history.”

Dutch National Police Chief Constable Jannine van den Berg said the sting dealt “an unprecedented blow to criminal networks, and this is worldwide.”

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The seeds of the operations were sown when law enforcement agencies earlier took down two other encrypted platforms, EncroChat and Sky ECC. That meant that crime gangs trafficking in drugs and ordering underworld killings across the globe were in the market for new secure phones.

The FBI had just what it needed. An app called ANOM was installed on modified mobile phones. Unlike typical cellphones, the devices do not make phone calls or browse the internet. Over the last 18 months, the FBI provided those phones via unsuspecting middlemen to more than 300 gangs operating in over 100 countries.

Encrypted-messaging app Signal appears to have been blocked in mainland China, where the internet is tightly controlled by the government.

“There was a void that was created by a lack of these encrypted platforms,” said Calvin Shivers of the FBI. “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.”

The app formed the backbone of Trojan Shield, an operation led by the FBI that also involved the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the European Union police agency Europol and law enforcement agencies in more than a dozen countries.

It allowed police to look over the shoulders of criminals as they discussed hits, drug shipments and other crimes on what they thought was a secure platform.

Intelligence gathered and analyzed “enabled us to prevent murders,” Shivers said. “It led to the seizure of drugs that led to the seizure of weapons. And it helped prevent a number of crimes.”

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Law enforcement agencies from Sweden to New Zealand attested to the effectiveness of the operation.

Swedish police prevented a dozen planned killings and believed they had 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 had been detained and more than half a ton of drugs confiscated, along with dozens of guns and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. In Germany, the general prosecutor’s office in Frankfurt said more than 70 people were arrested Monday; drugs, cash and weapons also were seized.

Australian 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.

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“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, called Sky ECC, and seizing more than 17 tons of cocaine.

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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.”


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