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Dublin: 18 °C Thursday 6 August, 2020
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Decrypted: How European drug lords are scrambling for cover as encrypted phone networks are compromised

The Kinahan cartel is suspected of using these phones.

A JOINT EUROPEAN investigation carried out by French and Dutch police forces has resulted in the dismantling of an encrypted phone network used by organised crime groups across the world, including members of the Kinahan cartel. 

In a joint press conference yesterday, it emerged that police forces had been able to intercept, share and analyse millions of messages sent using EncroChat which were exchanged between thousands of criminals.

Europol said the operation found that “certain messages indicated plans to commit imminent violent crimes” and thus “triggered immediate action” by law enforcement agencies.

EncroChat, a company which legally provides encrypted phones, was set up to offer customers guaranteed cybersecurity, meaning messages sent from their devices could not be traced back to the user. For example, the SIM card or device used by a customer was not associated with their account.

GPS functions, the camera and microphone are all removed from the device meaning nobody could listen in or locate the phone. There were also functions available whereby the contents of the device were erased if the password was put in incorrectly a set number of times. 

The Kinahan cartel has been known to use EncroChat. Gardaí believe its top leaders use the sophisticated systems to organise drug shipments and to plan attacks on rivals. 

The phones cost €1,000 each and there is a €1,500 subscription fee every six months. 

Exactly how many messages or accounts linked to Irish organised crime organisations is currently unknown. However, recent arrests of Irish people in the Netherlands, as well as significant drug seizures here in the last eight weeks, are understood to be linked to the message hacking operation. 

It is understood gardaí are using messages gleaned from encrypted devices to build a case against the Kinahan gang’s top leaders. 

Hundreds of criminals across European authorities have been arrested as a result of the hack. 

Europol said that more than 8,000 kilos of cocaine and 1,200 kilos of crystal meth have been seized as a result of the operation so far.

Other successes include: 

  • The dismantling of 19 synthetic drugs labs
  • The seizure of dozens of automatic weapons, expensive watches and 25 cars, including vehicles with hidden compartments
  • The recouping of €20 million in cash

According to Europol, millions of messages were being read in real-time during the course of the investigation, effectively allowing law enforcement to “look over the shoulder” of the criminals as they sent the messages.

It now appears that police forces were able to install a device into the EncroChat system which enabled them to view the messages immediately after they were sent. Europol refused to give more detail on precisely how they infiltrated the system. 

However, a spokesperson for Europol said it was possible to put a “technical device in place to go beyond the encryption technique” which offered the breakthrough. 

In a statement, Europol said that information received from these messages will seriously disrupt the work of organised crime gangs for years to come.

encrochat The message sent to users (on the right) when the company found out its security had been breached. Source: Europol

It read: “The information has already been relevant in a large number of ongoing criminal investigations, resulting in the disruption of criminal activities including violent attacks, corruption, attempted murders and large-scale drug transports. Certain messages indicated plans to commit imminent violent crimes and triggered immediate action.

“The information will be further analysed as a source of unique insight, giving access to unprecedented volumes of new evidence to profoundly tackle organised criminal networks.”

International police forces effectively had access to conversations between criminals from April until 13 June when the company realised its security had been penetrated. 

EncroChat then sent an “emergency” advisory to all its users to tell them the firm could no longer guarantee the security of devices. The note told customers to physically dispose of the devices after powering them off. 

Europol said the effects of the operation will continue to “echo in criminal circles for many years to come”.

Information has been provided to hundreds of ongoing investigations and, at the same time, is triggering a very large number of new probes of organised crime across Europe.

Europol said many of these investigations were connected with international drug trafficking and violent criminal activities.

Gardaí have known for some time that serious criminal factions in Ireland have been using encrypted servers, including Encrochat, to facilitate the importation of drugs into the country and the arrangements of murders. 

In early 2018, TheJournal.ie reported how the Kinahan cartel had also been using a German IT protection system to send encrypted messages. The use of that program ended after the arrest of Chilean drug lord El Rico and the seizure of his phones. 

From there, the cartel had to change its way of communicating and opted for the Encrochat service.

Arrests and seizures in Ireland

The PSNI confirmed yesterday that it had carried out over two dozen searches and made “a significant number of arrests and seizures” following information received from the encrypted servers. 

Operation Venetic, as it was called in the UK, resulted in the seizure of hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash. Fifteen EncroChat phones were also seized in the raids. 

Detective Chief Superintendent Andrew Freeburn said Op Venetic is “one of the most significant investigations into serious and organised criminality conducted by our police service in collaboration with law enforcement partners across Europe and internationally”.

A total of 44 charges have been brought so far in the North as a result of the operation. 

Gardaí would not comment when asked if the international operation had resulted in seizures and arrests in this jurisdiction. 

Screenshot 2020-07-02 at 3.31.13 PM A timeline of the intervention. Source: Europol

This is yet more bad news for Daniel Kinahan, whose recent attempts to rebrand himself as a boxing promoter have backfired. 

Members of An Garda Síochána are currently in Dubai, where Kinahan currently resides, as they continue to investigate his suspected involvement in criminality. TheJournal.ie understands that Kinahan is wanted for questioning in relation to serious crimes. To date, he has never been convicted of any crime. 

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Dubai now requires international residents on working visas to have what is known as a Certificate of Good Conduct. Allegations of wrongdoing can be enough to revoke or refuse this certificate, and it is believed gardaí travelled to discuss Kinahan’s residency with authorities in the UAE recently. 

Sources have told this publication that it would be unlikely for Kinahan to bring a legal challenge if the emirate was to revoke his residency. He might well be fearful of a process which could unearth more allegations, something he has avoided since he fled there in 2018. 

Bahrain, where Kinahan had been unveiled as a new special advisor last in May, had been a back-up plan for Kinahan, particularly when a job with KHK Sports, which is run by the King’s son, was secured. 

However, it was a short-lived plan. After weeks of controversy, a statement from KHK Sports released last month read: “KHK Sports confirms it has discontinued engagement with Daniel Kinahan and he is no longer an adviser to KHK.”

Where to next? 

The Middle East odyssey, where it appears he had hoped to reinvent boxing and bring the biggest fights to the gulf, may well be coming to an end if Dubai decides he has outstayed his welcome.

Considering he is wanted in three European states for questioning in relation to several serious incidents, Kinahan cannot live in Western Europe without risking arrest. 

The Balkans are a no go as to set up shop there could be seen by associates in the Russian mob as moving into an area that it controls.

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It had been planned for some of the high-ranking associates of the Kinahan Cartel to attempt to infiltrate the drugs trade in pockets of South Africa and South America but a lack of clout in Africa and far too much notoriety in many south American countries mean that heading to either continent comes with its own risks. 

According to sources TheJournal.ie has spoken with, it appears that one of the most viable options for Kinahan is the Far East. Macau has been mentioned – so too has Hong Kong. 

Christy Kinahan Senior had been spotted in Hong Kong in recent years, prompting gardaí to believe the cartel has business there, much of it in the form of property and money laundering ventures. 

Macau, with its vibrant casino nightlife, mixed with its love of boxing, may seem like the perfect place for Kinahan to try next, if he has to leave Dubai. 

Dubai police did not respond to requests for comment regarding Kinahan’s stay in the emirate. 

Daniel Kinahan has no criminal convictions.

In a High Court affidavit in Ireland, the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) described how he managed and controlled the day-to-day operations of the drug gang.

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