Hundreds of suspected organized criminals in 18 countries have been arrested after US and Australian agencies hacked an app used by criminals and read millions of encrypted messages, Australian officials said.
The Australian police and FBI operation caught suspects in Australia, Asia, South America and the Middle East involved in the global narcotics trade, officials said.
Called Operation Trojan Shield by the FBI, it was one of the largest infiltrations and acquisitions of a specialized encrypted network.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the operation had “dealt a severe blow against organized crime, not only in this country, but will echo … around the world.”
“This is a watershed moment in the history of Australian law enforcement,” Morrison told reporters in Sydney.
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said police raids in 18 countries had captured hundreds of suspects. Europol and the FBI said on social media that they would hold press conferences later on Tuesday.
Australia said it had arrested 224 people, including members of outlawed motorcycle gangs, while New Zealand said it had arrested 35 people.
In the operation, which was conceived by the Australian police and the FBI in 2018, US officials took control of the An0m messaging app used by organized crime networks.
When a figure from the Australian underworld began distributing personalized phones containing the app to his associates as a secure means of communication, the police were able to monitor his messages. The gangs believed the system was secure because the phones had no other capabilities (no voice or camera functions were loaded) and the app was encrypted.
“We have been in the back pockets of organized crime,” Kershaw said at the same news conference. “All they talk about is drugs, violence, beatings among themselves, innocent people who are going to be killed.”
The messages were cheeky and there was no attempt to hide behind any kind of code, he said. “He was there to be seen, including ‘we’ll have a speedboat meet you at this point’, ‘this is the one who will do this’ and so on.
Kershaw said the Australian underworld figure, who had fled the country, had “essentially created his own colleagues” by distributing the phones and was a marked man. “The sooner he turns himself in, the better for him and his family,” he said.
An assassination plot that authorities learned involved plans to attack a cafe with a machine gun, while a family of five was also targeted. Authorities said they were able to prevent these attacks.
Executing Australia’s most search warrants in one day, police on Monday seized 104 firearms, including a military-grade sniper rifle, as well as nearly AU $ 45 million (£ 25 million) in cash. About AU $ 7 million was found in a safe buried under a garden shed in a Sydney suburb.
A total of 525 charges have been filed, but authorities expect more in the coming weeks.