Global crime bust leads to more than 800 arrests

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LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — Operation Trojan Shield is being called one of the largest gang and drug busts of all time, and it was all run by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s San Diego field office.

Alleged criminals in 16 countries around the world were tricked into using cellphones that came preloaded with an application called ANOM that promised to encrypt their messages. However, the app was actually developed by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

“Each and every device in this case was utilized to further criminal activity,” Suzanne Turner, the special agent in charge of the San Diego Field Office, said.

But how did the alleged criminals get the phones? According to the FBI, they were only sold through the black market. An animated video distributed by the Australian Federal Police explained how the phones were used.

“The customized phones were used by alleged senior crime figures, which gave other criminals the confidence to use the platform,” the video said. “You had to know a criminal to get hold of one of these customized phones. The phones couldn’t [place calls] or email, they could only communicate with someone on the same platform.”

“You cannot walk into a Verizon or AT&T store and purchase one of these devices,” Turner said. “You must know somebody who sells them and be vetted by them.”

The operation led to police raids in 16 nations after some 27 million messages were intercepted, most involving criminal activity like drug trafficking and money laundering. So far, the operation has led to at least 800 arrests and the seizure of eight tons of cocaine and more than 250 firearms.

“We have arrested the kingmakers behind these crimes, prevented mass shootings in suburbs and frustrated serious and organized crime by seizing their ill-gotten wealth,” Reece Kershaw, Australian Federal Police commissioner, said.

“In that community of people, they probably thought it was safe and reliable,” Javid Ali, a former FBI agent, said. “And they didn’t know that someone in their own ranks or in that same sort of wide circle had turned over to the other side.”

Ali worked for the FBI for 11 years as the senior intelligence officer for counterintelligence. He said that while this operation was successful, it might not work for future cases. He said that when it comes to criminals, the “dumb” ones would continue to use methods like encrypted messaging and the “smart” ones would completely change their behaviors.

“This is the constant challenge in this game,” he said. “It’s cat and mouse, it’s one step forward and two steps back. Sometimes the good guys win, like apparently what’s happened over the last couple of days, and sometimes, unfortunately, the bad guys have wins on their side as well.”

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