WELLINGTON, New Zealand
(AP) — Authorities in Australia and New Zealand said Tuesday that they had dealt a significant blow to organized crime
by duping hundreds of criminals into using a messaging app run secretly by the FBI
According to police
, criminal gangs believed the encrypted app ANOM was safe from snooping, despite the fact that authorities had been monitoring millions of messages about drug smuggling, money
laundering, and even planned murders for months.
The app was part of a global 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 from more than a dozen countries. European and US authorities planned their own announcements later Tuesday.
According to Australian
authorities, the app was installed on stripped-down mobile phones, and its popularity grew organically in criminal circles after it was endorsed by some high-profile underworld figures known as "criminal influencers
In an ongoing three-year operation, Australian authorities arrested 224 people
and seized more than four tons of drugs and $35 million, while New Zealand police arrested 35 people and seized drugs and assets worth millions of dollars.
The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, told reporters that it was a watershed moment that would make the country's communities safer.
“Today, the Australian government has struck a heavy blow against organized crime as part of a global operation,” Morrison said, “not just in this country, but one that will reverberate around organized crime all over the world.”
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said the sting, dubbed Operation Ironside in Australia, was the result of a long-standing collaboration between his agency and the FBI, and that they had shut down six clandestine laboratories and stopped 21 death
threats, including the rescue of a family of five.
“By seizing their ill-gotten wealth, we were able to arrest the alleged kingmakers behind these crimes, prevent mass shootings
in suburbs, and frustrate serious and organized crime,” Kershaw said.
Det. Superintendent Greg Williams, who leads a New Zealand police unit combating organized crime, said the sting was conceived in 2018 after the FBI took down a previous secure app popular among criminals, Phantom Secure.
According to Williams, this created a void in the market, which the government helped to fill with the ANOM app.
“We simply cannot praise the FBI and their work
in the background here enough,” Williams said.
He explained that because New Zealand is a small country, it relies on the intelligence-gathering capabilities of its Five Eyes partners, which include the United States
, Australia, Canada
, and the United Kingdom