A New Zealander is alleged to have sold the secure ‘Anom’ encryption devices to members of the criminal fraternity, unwittingly distributing the digital network which the FBI secretly controlled.
Millions of private conversations which organised crime figures thought were impossible for law enforcement to intercept were, in fact, being decrypted in real time by the FBI and the Australian Federal Police in an operation dubbed the “sting of the century”.
The incriminating communications and intelligence were shared with 16 countries and Operation Trojan Shield was unveiled yesterday with more than 800 arrests and millions of dollars and tonnes of drugs seized.
In New Zealand, members of the Comancheros, Waikato Mongrel Mob and Head Hunters motorcycle gangs were among 35 people arrested and charged with serious drug smuggling and money laundering offences.
The Herald reported last night that Duax Hohepa Ngakuru, a high-ranking member of the Comancheros who fled Australia for Turkey a decade ago, was named in charging documents as allegedly conspiring to import large quantities of methamphetamine and MDMA into New Zealand, as well as money laundering.
One of his co-accused, Shane Ellwood Ngakuru, is also on the run overseas.
The 41-year-old is alleged to have imported methamphetamine, cocaine and MDMA into New Zealand. He also faces charges of drug conspiracy, money laundering and participating in an organised criminal group.
Shane Ngakuru is believed to be living in Thailand, which does not have a formal extradition treaty with New Zealand.
However, Ngakuru is also wanted by the United States.
He has been named in an indictment released by the Department of Justice which alleges Ngakuru was among a select group of criminals who distributed the Anom communication devices – effectively setting up their own associates.
The FBI alleges Ngakuru was a distributor of the encrypted devices, receiving payments for the $2000 six-month subscription fees and able to remotely delete and reset devices, as well as communicating with the administrators of the encrypted communications platform.
The fact the encryption platform was, in fact, an elaborate sting does not change the alleged criminal intent of those running who thought they were running Anom, according to the FBI case.
Anom was marketed as “designed by criminals for criminals” with , according to the FBI, the purpose of facilitating global drug trafficking and money laundering without being detected by law enforcement.
By allegedly playing such an important role in distribution and technical support, Ngakuru hasbeen charged as part of the so-called ‘ANoM Enterprise’ under the US anti-racketeering legislation.
“There are at least 9500 Anom devices in use worldwide, including in the United States. Since October 2019, Anom has generated the defendants millions of dollars in profit by facilitating the criminal activity of transnational criminal organisations and protecting these organisations from law enforcement.”
The FBI considers Shane Ngakuru a “fugitive”. If arrested and convicted in the United States he faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Encrypted communication devices or apps, where crooks can openly discuss their activities without fear of their messages being intercepted by police, have made it extremely difficult to investigate organised crime in recent years.
After shutting down an encrypted platform in 2018, the FBI went a step further in Operation Trojan Shield to actually create their own.
This unprecedented treasure trove of intelligence was shared with a dozen countries, including New Zealand, and dovetailed with an ongoing investigation into large-scale drug smuggling allegedly linked to the Comancheros motorcycle gang.
This morphed into two other parallel inquiries in which police targeted a group of Head Hunters in Auckland, as well as an alleged alliance between the Comancheros and the Waikato Mongrel Mob.
“It’s a great day for New Zealand,” Detective Superintendent Greg Williams told the Herald yesterday.
“We believe the termination of these operations will have a significant impact on New Zealand’s organised crime scene.”
Around $3.7m in assets had been seized, along with 20 ounces of methamphetamine, large bags of cannabis, multiple kilograms of iodine, four firearms, 14 vehicles, including two marine vessels, mobile phones and more than $1m in cash.
More arrests are expected.
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