‘Threat-to-life messages’: 39 men charged as part of global police sting appear in court

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Almost 40 Victorian men charged as part of a global police sting that cracked open an encrypted app have faced court as fresh details of Operation Ironside were aired in a courtroom for the first time.

Accused men and their lawyers filled six rows on Monday in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, where the police case against the men was tested for the first time.

Clockwise from top left: The AFP seized 160 kilograms of cocaine during Operation Ironside in late May 2021; Mark Buddle in a prison vehicle leaving the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court; the AN0M app logo.Credit: AFP, Jason South, Alamy

Australian Federal Police digital forensic examiner Keith Fell said he was tasked with examining phones that had the encrypted AN0M application installed. Officers had infiltrated the app over about three years.

Fell said while the devices looked like mobile phones, the AN0M part of the device could only be accessed through a password-controlled calculator app.

Two codes could be used, he said, one that would allow a user to access the encrypted service and another that would wipe the phone.

He said one setting also allowed the user to set a time when messages were automatically deleted.

“It’s unique; it’s nothing I’ve come across before,” Fell said.

Those charged as part of the sting include senior Comancheros figure Mark Buddle, who is accused of being involved in a transnational criminal syndicate that operated out of Hong Kong and Turkey and who allegedly imported $40 million of cocaine into Melbourne in May 2021.

Buddle returned to Victoria in August 2022 after six years abroad and remains in custody at Barwon Prison.

Thirty-eight others are facing charges including trafficking drugs, dealing in the proceeds of crime and possessing firearms and other weapons.

Of those charged, eight remain in custody and appeared in court remotely on Monday from places including Barwon and Port Phillip prisons.

Credit: Darrian Traynor

Eight witnesses are expected to give evidence over the coming month, including a person who acted as the conduit between the AFP and their “human source”.

Acting AFP Superintendent Robert Dzaja was involved in Operation Ironside for 18 months from January 2020, when the operation was classified and not widely known. He told the court that while the general intent was to run an encrypted communication platform that allowed investigators to capture and gain evidence, the intention was for the platform to largely remain a secret.

By March 2021, though, it became a priority for the entire operation, he said. The operation had allowed officers to read intercepted messages from AN0M devices in real time.

This, he said, included “threat-to-life messages”.

Dzaja said that when Australian authorities learnt of potential hits overseas, though, they were not permitted to hand over “protected information” to other countries.

He agreed there ended up being so many devices internationally that the AFP found it hard to keep up with monitoring them all. As the operation grew, he said, translators had to be called in to help with data collection.

In June 2021, the AFP said it had stopped 21 planned underworld killings in Melbourne and infiltrated drug networks across the country as part of an international investigation using encrypted message technology.

At the time, it was revealed Australian police had partnered with the FBI for a three-year operation, dubbed the “sting of the century”.

It followed the take-down in 2018 of encryption service Phantom Secure, which had 14,000 users in Australia. Authorities, police said, then moved to infiltrate AN0M just before the product was due to be released to the criminal market.

As the operation concluded, in Victoria alone police raided 37 properties and arrested 32 people while also seizing more than a tonne of illicit drugs, luxury cars, cash, guns and gold bullion at places including Sydenham, Footscray, Glenroy, Elwood and Port Melbourne.

Australia-wide, more than 220 people were arrested. About 3.7 tonnes of drugs, $45 million in cash and 104 weapons were also seized in the operation, which involved more than 4000 police.

The committal hearing before magistrate Simon Zebrowski continues.

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