'Biggest ever' UK operation against organised crime sees multiple arrests

A military-grade encrypted phone network widely used by thousands of organised criminals has provided police with a “gold mine” of information, foiling several assassination attempts and leading to multiple arrests and drug and money seizures, investigators have revealed.

Jul 2, 2020
By Tony Thompson
Money seized by the MPS during the operation.

Specialists from the National Crime Agency (NCA), regional crime squads and every police force in the UK were involved in the operation.

The NCA said it was after four years of work by international police units that French investigators managed to access Encrochat, an encrypted platform used by 60,000 people worldwide, including around 10,000 in the UK, for what law enforcement agencies claim were purely criminal purposes.

The encrypted handsets allowed users to securely communicate on a platform that until now was impenetrable. Encrochat charged £1,500 for a device on a six-month contract.

Law enforcement had been aware of Encrochat for some years. Drug dealers Andrew Venna and Matthew Cornwall, who operated in Gloucester and Stroud, used the devices before they were jailed in May 2019; as did Mark Fellows and Steven Boyle, who were jailed for life last year for the 2015 gangland killings of John Kinsella and Paul Massey in Liverpool.

After the platform was accessed, investigators were able to monitor thousands of Encrochat handsets and analyse millions of messages to get information on drug dealing, the sale of illegal guns and money laundering.

Earlier this year, French and Dutch investigators managed to hack into Encrochat’s systems, providing a gold mine of information about the activities of those using the handsets. NCA director of investigations Nikki Holland said the breach was like “having an inside person in every top organised crime group in the country”.

Over the past few months, law enforcement agencies across Europe shared data obtained from Encrochat through the international operation known as Venetic with police forces across the UK.

In June, Eurochat sent out a warning to users to say that its servers had been hacked by a government entity.

This left investigators with a race against time to make the most of the wealth of information available on the platform, targeting “Mr and Mrs Bigs” before they could cover their tracks.

Specialist detectives worked relentlessly to form investigations around those utilising these handsets to commit some of the most serious crimes across the capital. They have monitored hundreds of handsets and analysed thousands of encrypted messages to build dozens of cases.

Ms Holland said “This is the biggest and the most significant law enforcement operation of its kind in the UK and it is previously unmatched in terms of its scale. We have dismantled well-established organised crime groups and have already secured evidence to prosecute a significant number of known criminals that have previously remained beyond our reach.”

So far, officers in the UK have arrested 746 suspects and seized more than £54 million in cash, as well as 55 sports cars and 73 luxury watches. They have taken control of more than two tonnes of Class A and B drugs, as well as 28 million street valium pills. A total of 77 guns, including submachine guns, as well as 1,800 rounds of ammunition and four grenades, have also been seized.
The NCA said UK law enforcement had dealt with more than 200 threats to life and had “undoubtedly” prevented murders between rival gangs.

Detective Chief Superintendent Alastair Simpson, from the North East Regional Special Operations Unit, said the operation has shown the far-reaching powers of police forces and law enforcement and warned that anyone making money from serious and organised crime would be brought to justice and stripped of their assets sooner rather than later.

He said: “Organised crime is anything which is planned, coordinated and conducted by brazen individuals who want nothing more than to turn a profit. This operation sends a clear message that we will do all we can to bring these people to justice and seize any assets achieved through criminal means.

“This has been a clear priority for us and the three police forces of Northumbria, Durham and Cleveland since we launched Operation Sentinel last January, our overarching dedicated initiative to target this type of activity.

“Organised crime can devastate our communities and can often see the exploitation of children and vulnerable people. While it’s amazing to see such large recoveries of drugs and firearms – it’s important we continue our work so these groups are dismantled and can no longer operate.

“Community intelligence is vital to this and we hope this activity gives people the confidence to approach their local force with any information that can help us tackle serious and organised crime.”

Data passed to the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) revealed there were approximately 1,400 London-based users of Encrochat. On receiving data relating to those using the devices in London, the MPS launched Operation Eternal to target those using them for criminality.

The MPS has achieved results in 34 separate investigations under this operation and arrested 171 people for offences including conspiracy to murder, possession of firearms, money laundering and conspiracy to supply Class A and B drugs.

A total of 99 people have been charged so far, and officers have seized more than £13.4 million in cash – £5 million of this in one operation alone. This is the largest single cash seizure the MPS has ever made.

Officers have recovered 16 firearms, including Scorpion submachine guns and revolvers, seized more than 500 rounds of ammunition, 37 encrypted devices, 620kgs of Class A drugs and 19kgs of Class B drugs.

A statement released by the force said: “Those arrested under one investigation were identified as being part of the most high-harm organised crime group (OCG) in London, with long-standing links to violent crime and the importation of Class A drugs. The central figures of this group lead lavish lifestyles and live in multi-million pound properties with access to top of the range vehicles.

“They appear to be successful, respectable business people but they are dangerous individuals. Our enforcement activity against them reflects this – we used our most highly trained firearms officers and sophisticated tactics to arrest them at their addresses.

“Another investigation clearly demonstrates the link between international organised crime and serious violence across London. It focused on an OCG spanning the UK, Europe and UAE involved in the importation and distribution of cocaine and firearms.

“This network was actively supplying drugs to street gangs across the MPS area who protect and advance their criminality through serious violence on the streets of London.

“In June, detectives identified a plan by this OCG to shoot and kill a member of a rival group. Their investigation meant they were able to take action to prevent this. An individual was arrested for conspiracy to murder, and a loaded pistol – believed to be the planned murder weapon – was seized from an associated search of an address.”

MPS Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said: “This operation is the most significant activity, certainly in my career, we have ever carried out against serious and organised criminality across London.

“OCGs have used encrypted communications to enable their offending. They have openly discussed plots to murder, launder money, deal drugs and sell firearms capable of causing atrocious scenes in our communities. They were brazen and thought they were beyond the reach of the law.

“Organised crime does not respect geographical boundaries. Those responsible for it adapt quickly and take advantage of every opportunity. This operation has enabled us to target those at the top of the hierarchy and individuals we have known about for years but have not been able to tackle head on.

“This offending has a direct impact on our communities – those involved appear to have an air of respectability, but their actions leave a trail of misery and are inextricably linked to the violent scenes we see play out on our streets. Our investigators, intelligence analysts, firearms officers, Territorial Support Group and our local officers have worked day and night over the past two months to progress our investigations as part of this operation.

“Through this work with our international partners, we have significantly developed our understanding of organised criminality in London and the ways in which some of our most prolific and dangerous offenders operate. This is just the beginning, there are many more people we are investigating. We know who they are and we have seen what they are doing and who they are doing it with. We will not rest until they have seen justice.”

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