Operation Ironside Phase 2 to land second blow to organised crime

Australian Federal Police, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, NSW Police Force, Queensland Police Service, Victoria Police

Editor’s note: Audio grabs from Detective Superintendent Kristy Scott and vision of Operation Ironside Phase 1 investigations are available on Hightail.

The second phase of the Australian Federal Police-led Operation Ironside will be launched today under a nationally-coordinated strike against organised crime.

The AFP and state law enforcement agencies will begin the protracted offensive, which is likely to run for months, and will focus on arrests plus the disruption of criminals’ business operations.

Up to 160 targets around Australia have been identified under Operation Ironside Phase 2.

Those targets include outlaw motorcycle gangs, Italian organised crime, illicit drug distributors and trusted insiders – those who use their knowledge or connections at a workplace to facilitate crime.

Operation Ironside was a three-year, covert, AFP-led investigation into significant organised crime syndicates that were using dedicated encrypted communications device, named AN0M, to traffic illicit drugs and weapons to Australia, as well as order local executions.

The global sting was enabled by the AFP and FBI. The FBI secretly controlled AN0M, which was distributed and used only by transnational serious organised crime, or those facilitating crime for them. AFP technical expertise allowed law enforcement to obtain and read the encrypted messages in real time.

On June 8, 2021, Operation Ironside, launched hundreds of search warrants across Australia.

To date, more than 700 warrants were executed and 311 offenders were charged with 820 offences. More than 6.3 tonnes of illicit drugs and 139 weapons have been seized. About $52 million in suspected proceeds of crime has been seized.

Globally, 993 suspects were arrested after 1042 search warrants were executed.

More than 42 tonnes of illicit drugs were seized, along with 220 firearms. More than $US58 million in cash and cryptocurrency has also been seized by global law enforcement agencies.

When the AN0M platform was shut down in June 2021, about 19 million messages captured from the platform related to Australia.

The AN0M platform has provided voluminous, invaluable intelligence and insight that has never been obtained before by Australian law enforcement.

These key insights are helping the AFP to determine who and what it will target next, including companies and professionals who are unknowingly or deliberately facilitating transnational serious organised crime.

Some of this intelligence includes:

  • A number of criminal groups used dive teams to assist in attaching and/or retrieving illicit drugs imported via cargo ships. The drugs would be attached to, or secreted within, the hulls of ships or thrown overboard before the shop docked at port. Criminals planning to dive themselves bought expensive equipment, such as sea bobs – small underwater scooters – to help them descend and ascend quickly. Some planned to paint these underwater scooters to be less visible. Intermediaries likely operated between dive crews and criminal syndicates;
  • Criminal syndicates used waste management services to pick up drugs hidden in bins at ports;
  • Criminals shared legal advice over AN0M about which lawyers they were using and what legal advice they were provided in the event they were charged for drug trafficking;
  • Australian high-profile syndicates are moving offshore, creating an ex-pat community of criminals;
  • Specialist illicit drug cooks are providing their unique services in multiple countries, including Australia, to help extract concealed drugs.

Using this intelligence, the AFP and our partners have built intelligence packages against alleged offenders. This is continuing and is it likely arrests under Operation Ironside will continue for years.

Today, the AFP will also reveal more details about AN0M.

Criminals distributed AN0M under a four-tier system.

  • Wholesalers were mid-to-high-level criminals, some with exclusive distribution rights in certain countries and regions;
  • Agents had distribution rights for particular territories. They employed staff to recruit more clients and deal with “customer” issues;
  • Representatives were resellers who sold devices to associates and collected fees for subscriptions; and
  • Drivers were employed to deliver the AN0M handsets.
  • Criminals have moved to other encrypted devices. It is likely some large syndicates will develop their own dedicated encrypted communication devices and private networks within the next three years.

The messages decrypted on AN0M revealed multiple users around the world planned, discussed or carried out cocaine imports to Australia from various countries.

Several users planned multi-tonne ventures, including one group which planned to import 3 tonnes of cocaine, half of Australia’s annual consumption.

AFP Assistant Commissioner Crime Command Nigel Ryan said Operation Ironside was continuing to reveal serious syndicates, plus those on the periphery who provided significant assistance to criminal gangs but believed they were unknown to law enforcement.

“You will see AFP or our state law enforcement partners executing search warrants across Australia in the coming months,’’ Assistant Commissioner Ryan said.

“It is just a matter of time before we scoop up those who believed they had gotten away with their crimes – like the alleged criminals who smashed or burned their AN0M devices.

“The AFP will never give up in the fight against organised crime. We do this to keep Australians safe – that is our number one job.”

AFP Assistant Commissioner Ryan said illicit drug use was deeply concerning for the AFP.

“Transnational serious organised criminals, including outlaw motorcycle gangs, triads, cartels and Italian organised criminals, are trafficking drugs into Australia at an industrial scale because of the significant profits being made,’’ he said.

“The AFP is deeply concerned about how Australia’s illicit drug use impacts on national security, money laundering and the economy. We also hold grave fears about how illicit drug use is making our vulnerable communities, our suburbs and our roads less safe.

“We are seeing drug wars played out in suburbs, as well as the indiscriminate tragedies illicit drug use can be linked to, such as road trauma.”

NSW State Crime Commander, Assistant Commissioner Stuart Smith, said law enforcement agencies Australia-wide continue to maintain and strengthen their partnerships to combat serious organised crime.

“The ongoing targeting of criminal groups identified through this operation has only been made possible by taking a collaborative, multi-agency approach,” Assistant Commissioner Smith said.

“We know that improved intelligence and information sharing among law enforcement partners has drastically enhanced our responses to organised crime, which we saw during Operation Ironside I.

“Since that time, police have been working hard to analyse and explore all those additional leads, specifically targeting trusted insiders and those who present the most significant threat to our communities,” Assistant Commissioner Smith said.

Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Crime Command Bob Hill said, “The information obtained during the course of Operation Ironside has allowed police to continue to actively target a number of serious and organised crime groups based within Victoria.”

“While we have already had a number of significant results including the arrest of over 50 people in Victoria, we recognised that the ongoing analysis of the intelligence would provide us with a unique opportunity to keep holding these criminals to account.

“Victoria Police, along with our law enforcement partners, will continue to collaboratively do everything we can to dismantle these networks and ensure we prevent further harm to the Victorian community as a result of their actions.”

Queensland Police Service Acting Assistant Commissioner Roger Lowe said, “Operation Ironside has had a significant impact on dismantling the organised crime syndicates profiting from harm caused to our communities. 

“The arrests and seizures have laid bare the role of Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs in international crime impacting Queensland. 

“The outcomes of the operation are unprecedented and the Queensland Police will continue our strong approach, working closely with law enforcement partners”, Acting Assistant Commissioner Roger Lowe said.

ACIC Executive Director Intelligence Operations Rob Jackson said that strong collaboration and working relationships across Australian law enforcement is central to maximising the impact to disrupt the upper tiers of organised crime here in Australia and their associates offshore.

“We are committed to ongoing development of new and enhanced capabilities that complement law enforcement investigations and intelligence activities targeting criminal enterprises and those that enable illicit activity like money laundering, drug importations and other serious criminal offending.

“Developing collaborative strategies that leverage the breadth of law enforcement capability, tactics and legislation is key to disrupting and dismantling transnational serious and organised crime groups and Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs that adversely impact the Australian community and families,” Mr Jackson said.