Australian police arrest 200 after busting vast crime ring on underworld messaging app

Hundreds were arrested in the operation (Image: AFP)

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Australian police have arrested more than 200 people after exposing a vast global drugs ring using an encrypted messaging app.

The digital bust opened up nearly 25 million messages about "industrial scale" drug imports and murder plots, officials said on Tuesday

The operation – named Ironside – uncovered more than a hundred guns and seized millions of pounds in cash.

Authorities said the joint operation between Australia and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, which started in 2018, has snared criminals in Australia, Asia, South America and the Middle East.

Police said the criminals were involved in the global narcotics trade.

Ninja Warrior 2017 contestant Sopiea Kong, 33, was among those arrested
(Image: Instagram)

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the operation “struck a heavy blow against organised crime – not just in this country, but one that will echo around organised crime around the world”.

He told reporters in Sydney “this is a watershed moment in Australian law enforcement history."

Australia did not detail any arrests in other countries but said Europol and the FBI would hold news conferences later on Tuesday.

The plan, which was conceived by Australian law officers and the FBI in 2018, saw officials in the United States take control of a messaging app called ANOM, which authorities said was popular with organised criminals.

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When an Australian underworld figure begun distributing the app to his associates as a secure means to communicate, law enforcement authorities could monitor all their messages.

The gangs believed the system was secure because the phones did not have any other capabilities – no voice or camera functions were loaded – and the app was encrypted.

"We have been in the back pockets of organised crime," Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw told reporters at the same press briefing.

"All they talk about is drugs, violence, hits on each other, innocent people who are going to be murdered."

More than 100 guns were seized in the operation
(Image: AFP)

Luxury cars were also taken by officers
(Image: AFP)

Kershaw said one murder plot involved plans to target a cafe with a machine gun, while a family of five was also targeted.

The messages were brazen and there was no attempt to hide behind any kind of code, he said.

"It was there to be seen, including 'we'll have a speedboat meet you at this point', 'this is who will do this' and so on."

Kershaw said the Australian underworld figure, who had absconded from the country, had "essentially set up his own colleagues" by distributing the phones and was a marked man.

Officers seized reams of ammunition
(Image: AFP)

"The sooner he hands himself in, the better for him and his family," he said

A total of 224 people were arrested on Monday, including members of outlawed motorcycle gangs, and 104 firearms seized as well as almost A$45 million (£24.6 million) in cash.

New Zealand said it had detained 35 people.

In all 525 charges have been laid against the people arrested but officials said they expect more in the coming weeks.

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