More than 800 criminal suspects in 18 nations, including the U.S., were duped into using an FBI-monitored encryption app to plan their crimes, resulting in a massive organized crime takedown, prosecutors said Tuesday.
Authorities in New Zealand, Australia, Europe and the U.S. announced the results of Operation Trojan Shield in separate press conferences across the globe.
They said the takedown led to hundreds of arrests, the seizure of more than 250 illegal firearms and other weapons, more than $148 million in cash, nearly 40 tons of drugs, and six tons of precursor chemicals. In addition, 50 clandestine drug labs were dismantled.
In Australia, Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw told reporters the operation thwarted 21 murder plots, including one targeting a family of five.
All told, more than 9,000 law enforcement officers raided more than 700 locations worldwide. A federal grand jury in San Diego indicted 17 foreign nationals on corruption charges and eight have been arrested, authorities said at a press conference in San Diego.
“This was an unprecedented operation in terms of its massive scale, innovative strategy and technological and investigative achievement,” acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman for the Southern District of California told reporters.
Australian Federal Police Commander Jennifer Hearst went a step further, calling the operation “a watershed moment in global law enforcement history.”
The idea was hatched a few years ago when law enforcement agencies took down two encrypted platforms, EncroChat and Sky ECC. With those platforms unavailable, money laundering and drug trafficking organizations needed new secure phones.
Meanwhile, FBI technicians developed an app called ANOM. It marks the first time the FBI operated an encrypted device and promoted it to criminal groups worldwide.
Using underworld “influencers,” law enforcement put more than 12,000 ANOM devices in the hands of more than 300 criminal syndicates in more than 100 countries, the U.S. Justice Department said.
Authorities said the phones, which could be obtained only through the black market, became popular with criminals.
While criminals were using ANOM to carry out their plots, FBI agents cataloged more than 27 million messages over 18 months among users around the world.
Believing the ANOM device shielded their conversations from law enforcement with impenetrable encryption, suspects openly discussed their plots.
Criminals detailed drug shipments, money laundering, methods to conceal drugs and even violent threats. Some even negotiated drug deals through the app.
“Operation Trojan Shield has shattered any confidence criminals may have in using hardening encryption devices,” Mr. Grossman said.
The U.S. was not the only nation that had success with the app.
Australian authorities said they arrested 224 people and seized more than four tons of drugs and $35 million in cash. Police in New Zealand said they arrested 35 people and seized millions in assets.