Organised crime a grave threat to Australia

An op-ed by Dr William Stoltz, Senior Adviser for Public Policy at the National Security College.

22 July 2021

Around the world in early June, some of the most sophisticated criminals were arrested as part of the international operation dubbed Trojan Shield - the most complex and coordinated international law enforcement operation in recent history. In Australia, many of those charged were dragged from their beds where they slept in multi-million dollar compounds built from the proceeds of drugs, firearms, theft, and fraud. These high-value criminal targets had long believed they were beyond the detection of law enforcement, primarily because of their use of bespoke encrypted communications devices that have allowed them to manage their illicit businesses secretly and securely. In this instance, the success of the operation can be attributed to the cunning Australian idea to create and distribute one of these encrypted platforms for criminals - AN0M - that itself was secretly run by a coalition of police and intelligence agencies. With AN0M, policing agencies were able to observe millions of criminal messages, allowing authorities around the world to gradually identify and encircle organised criminals from Dubbo to The Hague. That was until 8 June when the grand ruse was revealed and the ‘resolution’ phase of Trojan Shield was activated. Thus far the resolution phase has led to charges against approximately a thousand suspects, the thwarting of dozens of murder plots and the seizure of tonnes of drugs and criminal wares of every conceivable variety.

Every law enforcement officer and intelligence analyst behind this operation deserves the highest praise and respect - especially those hundreds of Australian officers who faced physical harm to bring offenders to justice. But behind this stunning operational success are some distressing truths about the nature of transnational serious and organised crime (TSOC) today. Like a flare in the night, Trojan Shield has illuminated the industrial scale of modern TSOC organisations and the extent to which they have infiltrated and corrupted otherwise legitimate parts of our societies. Many of these organisations are comparable in scale to the largest multinational corporations. They operate and maintain versatile international supply chains that allow for diverse portfolios of illicit products to be traded across multiple jurisdictions. From this enterprise, an individual syndicate can generate billions of dollars in dirty money annually. They launder these billions through a shadow finance industry that uses cryptocurrencies, casinos, corrupt bankers, and front-companies, to render the money untraceable by police.

We can expect this operation to have had a long-running strategic effect on TSOC groups, with the Australian Federal Police Commissioner warning that there will likely be a spike in intra-criminal violence as beheaded syndicates reorganise in response and clamour for vengeance for all the dirty dealings that will be revealed in court. Recent brazen killings on the streets of New South Wales may be an early indication of this. However, one of the most sobering statistics from this operation is that AN0M - the secret encrypted platform police ran since 2018 - only accounted for an estimated 5% of encrypted criminal communications, meaning that 95% of the world’s TSOC communications carried over other platforms have likely remained largely undisrupted by Trojan Shield.

The fact is that sadly this operation, despite being Australia’s largest ever police activity, has revealed the inadequacies of our country’s current approach to countering TSOC. Yes, hundreds have been arrested and some syndicates will have been shut down for good, but others will take their place and they will learn from where their competitors failed. To better protect Australia from the next generation of TSOC groups we need to start by acknowledging the TSOC threat for what it is: a national security threat more urgent and severe than terrorism.

Because the human toll of TSOC is diffused across society it is understandable that it has been underestimated by the community. Unlike an explosive terrorist attack, our attention is not captivated on the nightly news by the dramatic shock of a drug addict overdosing or a pensioner’s life savings be stolen, but the human toll of organised crime is immense and pervasive. Every dollar spent on seizing drugs at Australia’s border or on sending police to respond to someone suffering the effects of methamphetamine can be attributed to TSOC, as can every life lost to illegal drugs. Sadly, our intelligence agencies have been slow to pay TSOC the attention it needs, preferring to leave the issue as primarily a policing concern for State, Territory and Commonwealth law enforcement agencies to deal with within their respective jurisdictions. This approach maybe made sense in the 1990s when the most pernicious groups Australia faced were largely locally contained, however the sophisticated transnational character of crime groups today means that they pose a clear threat to Australia’s international interests, as well as the wellbeing of Australians at home. Take for example the worrying penetration of South American TSOC groups into Papua New Guinea, who are using that vulnerable country as a haven from which to smuggle their wares into Australia. And if you don’t think drug runners taking hold in Australia’s developing neighbours sounds like a national security problem, consider the decades long insurgencies American agencies have fought against South America’s cartels and narco-states, like Colombia in the 1980s. Alternatively, look to Haiti today where syndicates who have long used the island state as a drug port are now exploiting the chaos following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse to tighten their control over everyday life.

Some current proposals underway will assist police in their fight against TSOC, but a significant cultural change within our intelligence community is urgently required to draw other agencies closer to the fight. Parliament is currently considering amendments to electronic surveillance laws, which will make it easier for law enforcement to identify serious criminals operating online by introducing new network activity warrants. However, these laws need to be accompanied by a cultural step-change amongst Australia’s intelligence agencies, particularly ASIO and ASD, to see TSOC as a sophisticated, global threat to liberal democratic and developing states that puts it above terrorism and at least on par with foreign interference as a threat to Australians’ way of life.

This article first appeared in the Herald Sun.
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