AFP targets encrypted platform used by organised crime syndicates

By Melissa Coade

Tuesday June 8, 2021

AFP headquarters, Canberra.
AFP headquarters, Canberra. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

The Australian government has provided an update on the role of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in a three-year international operation targeting a transnational organised crime ring.

A joint statement from home affairs minister Karen Andrews and prime minister Scott Morrison has disclosed that an AFP-led transnational operation has resulted in hundreds of warrants being executed across Australia since yesterday.

Operation Ironside, which targets serious organised criminals involved in arms and drug offences, is an international covert investigation that has been running for the last three years. 

The latest sting was achieved by decrypting a criminal communications platform and replacing it with one named AN0M, which the FBI had been covertly running without the knowledge of the criminal underworld.

Together, the AFP and FBI took down the encrypted platform of choice for criminals – known as Phantom Secure – and set about implementing AN0M in its place. 

“The FBI and AFP targeted a dedicated encrypted platform used exclusively by organised crime,” the PM and Andrews said.

“The AFP provided the highly-skilled, technical staff and capability to decrypt and read encrypted communication in real time, giving law enforcement an edge it had never had.”

The Australian government said that arrests of over 220 accused ‘mafia, outlaw motorcycle gangs and transnational serious organised criminals’ have been made as a result of the operation’s work, with more domestic arrests expected under the coordinated global response.

A statement published by the AFP also said the intervention of the operation likely saved innocent lives with intelligence about 20 threats to kill acted upon by state police agencies.

“The AFP is also likely to seek extradition requests of a number of persons of interest living overseas. It comes as there have been tonnes of drugs and hundreds of arrests overseas,” the AFP said.

“The AFP will allege offenders linked to Australian-based Italian mafia, outlaw motorcycle gangs, Asian crime syndicate and Albanian organised crime are among those charged under Operation Ironside.”

Since 2018 Operation Ironside has seized nearly $45 million, 3.7 tonnes of drugs and 104 forearms and weapons from criminals. 

Morrison and Andrews said that the headway made by the operation to date should serve as a warning to criminal networks that they would face justice. They added that ‘keeping Australians safe’ was the government’s highest priority and that a $1 billion investment to resource the AFP over seven years would help the agency ‘tackle the risks our community faces from organised crime, criminals and terrorists’.

“This is as a warning to organised crime in Australia, and abroad – the AFP and Australia’s law enforcement agencies have a laser-like focus in bringing them to justice,” the joint statement said. 

“The federal government congratulates the AFP for their dedication to keeping Australia safe and acknowledges the state and territory agencies for their support of Operation Ironside.”

“Australia thanks the FBI for its cooperation, along with the 18 countries that worked with the AFP through a EUROPOL Operational Task Force to maintain the integrity of AN0M.”

The operation has involved more than 9,000 enforcement agents around the world, with AFP members comprising more than half of these agents. 

AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw said that Australia was a safer country today because of the ‘extraordinary outcome’ of the operation. But he also cautioned that other encrypted platforms were likely to emerge and he anticipated more challenges by law enforcement in this regard for the future. 

“AN0M was an influential encrypted communications app but there are even bigger encrypted platforms that are being used by transnational and serious organised criminals targeting Australia.

“They are almost certainly using those encrypted platforms to flood Australia with drugs, guns and undermine our economy by laundering billions of dollars of illicit profit,” Kershaw said. 

Anthony Russo, the FBI International Operations Division Legal Attaché for Canberra, said international criminals were used to finding encrypted communications platforms to avoid law enforcement detection.

“The FBI, with our international partners, will continue to adapt to criminal behaviour and develop novel approaches to bring these criminals to justice,” Russo said.

“We appreciate our long standing partnership with the Australian Federal Police in the fight against transnational organised crime.”


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