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They thought they were untouchable

For years, big-time drug dealers like Thomas Maher – on the face of it a successful haulier living in a nice Cheshire suburb – could operate with impunity, untouchables laughing at the law. That all changed in 2021, a year when serious criminals finally began to feel they were the hunted, not the hunter. Scores of villains like Maher are behind bars and in Greater Manchester alone 150 others have been charged and are awaiting their fate.

Yet more arrests are expected in 2022. : 45 notorious UK criminals locked up for the longest terms in 2021 The battle against the most serious criminals in Britain was being emphatically being lost until the state-sanctioned hacking of a secret computer server in Roubaix, northern France, in April 2020 which was used all over the world to communicate beyond the reach of law enforcement.

Devices which use EncroChat like the Aquaris X, costing between GBP1,300 and GBP1,500 for six months of use, were marketed as providing totally secure communication, a kind of WhatsApp for criminals. The slogan on the EncroChat website was ‘encryption, secrecy, reputability, deniability’. An Aquaris X device with EncroChat software was used in the murder of Salford ‘Mr Big’ Paul Massey, as well as many other serious violent crimes.

For years, the totally legal EncroChat service allowed 50,000 users around the world – 9,000 of them in the UK – to communicate in the knowledge none of their texts and messages would be uncovered by law enforcement.

(C) EncroChat Police say EncroChat phones were used exclusively by criminals

When investigators managed to hack into the server, they sent bogus updates to devices across the globe which effectively mined incriminating data criminals wanted so much to conceal. Within six months more than 1,000 suspects had been arrested in the UK alone in an operation led by the National Crime Agency (NCA). Some GBP54m in cash, 77 guns, and two tonnes of drugs were seized in the first wave of investigations.

That was the tip of the iceberg. Greater Manchester Police launched Operation Foam, which started slowly. In those first six months, some GBP1.7m in cash was seized alongside 15 kilos of cocaine, two kilos of heroin, two kilos of cannabis, 70 kilos of amphetamines and 500,000 ecstasy tablets.

But detectives were carefully trawling through the data, building whopping cases which were to put serious villains behind bars. That work continues. A legal challenge to the validity of the evidence was defeated in court, and in early 2021, dozens of Manchester criminals saw the writing on the wall and fled the country to Spain, Holland and Dubai.

Police have vowed to track them down.

Serious criminals now behind bars

For others in the underworld, it was too late – people like Thomas Maher. So far more than 200 suspects have been arrested as part of Op Foam, and detectives have seized GBP2.5m in cash as well as nearly a dozen firearms, more than 1,100 rounds of ammunition, over 12 kilos of class A and 25 kilos of class B drugs, as well as jewellery and cars worth more than GBP300,000. The numbers only tell part of the story, however.

Some serious players have been taken out of action. Perhaps the most significant so far is Maher, a father-of-three who lived in a relatively modest detached home in Woolston, near Warrington, Cheshire. His hacked EncroChat messages showed that in April 2020 he orchestrated the collection and delivery of at least 21 kilos of cocaine from the Netherlands.

With direct links to Columbian drugs cartels, he was put under surveillance. Using his ‘Encro’ device, he was able to provide the transport and contacts for a Europe-wide smuggling operation, bringing drugs, including cocaine, to Ireland. He used handles such as Satirical and Snacker to conduct what he thought was a secret business and adopted a lexicon of crime in his communications.

Hand-grenades were ‘pineapples’ while cocaine was referred to as ‘tops’ or ‘posh’, and heroin was ‘bobs’. Ecstasy and cannabis were ‘polly’ and ‘jackets.’ Holland was referred to as the ‘Flat’ , Spain was the ‘Sun’ and the Republic of Ireland was ‘Home.’ Maher was originally from County Offaly in Leinster.

The HGVs used to move drugs around Europe were ‘taxis’ while hiding places were ‘slots’ and cash was ‘paperwork.’ Firearms and drugs were ‘bits.’ Confident his messages would never be exposed, he was unafraid to state how proud he was of his 20 years in the drug trade and that he ‘knew the ways’. These messages and his hubris led to his downfall.

His neighbours weren’t to know it at the time but his dodgy dealing explained how he was able to park a Range Rover, a Land Rover, a sleek, black Mercedes GLS worth GBP150,000, a BMW and a GBP70,000 imported Corvette in his driveway over the years. Inside the home were pieces of art – including a map of the world made from bullets. Maher also possessed watches worth GBP600,000.

He splashed out on holidays, spending GBP70,000 on breaks in around three years. He would fly to Dubai, Mexico and New York – always business or first class. He hired a private helicopter in New York.

In Dubai, he bought art. One piece cost GBP20,000. While staying at his property in Spain – a small apartment – he drove a Porsche Cayenne.

(C) NCA A GBP70,000 imported Corvette

Today he is serving a jail sentence of 14 years and eight months for drugs and money laundering offences.

‘Tenderpasta’ among dozens of others jailed

Maher has been joined by many others during 2021.

In October Ibraheem Adullah, 38, who used the Encro handle ‘Tenderpasta’ to import cocaine worth GBP1.6m, admitted serious drugs charges and is facing a lengthy jail sentence. Police raided a joiner’s yard in Middleton and found 20 kilos of high-purity cocaine stashed in boxes. The drugs had been sent from Holland.

Abdullah, also known as Dwaine George, attempted to flee when police came into the yard in Wade Street. He was chased on foot and caught, but in a desperate bid to destroy two phones he hurled one against a wall and dropped the other in a brook. The mined Encro data showed ‘Tenderpasta’ exchanged messages with the handle ‘Maxbro’.

The joiner’s yard was identified as the best drop off location. Analysis showed Abdullah’s phones were using cell masts near the yard at the time the messages were sent. He has admitted a charge of conspiracy to import Class A drugs and will be sentenced in the new year.

(C) GMP Nathan Loftus

Nathan Loftus, 38, used the Encro handle Bigmninee – he was jailed for 22 years in October.

He imported huge amounts of heroin and cocaine into the UK and was also known within the criminal underworld as a ‘go-to man’ for crooks who wanted guns. He was linked to a three semi-automatic pistols, a Browning, a Walther P22 and a Glock. Loftus recruited Sean Doyle to work as a driver.

Doyle, 30, from Blackley, was given an Encro phone with the handle ‘Minorspark’.

(C) GMP Sean Doyle

When Doyle was arrested at his home in Blackley, police discovered just under GBP348,000. Loftus had a ‘very expensive watch’ and a cryptocurrency wallet. He was locked up for seven years.

Another dealer, Nico Logan, 28, from Wythenshawe, used the Encro handle Fruitykecks – he was jailed for 16 years in December His co-conspirator Jordan Gabriel, 29, also from Wythenshawe, AKA Trunkengineer, was sentenced to 13-and-a-half years for his part in heroin and cannabis plots.

(C) GMP Nico Logan. Pictures of cash, drugs and a bullet were recovered from EncroChat messages

The pair also sourced a 9mm pistol using the network, and discussed ‘sprayers’ which could ‘kill a family in seconds’. Other messages talked of ‘controlling estates’, and of running a drugs line on each estate.

Both were found to have Rolex watches, while Gabriel had paid for a deposit and three months rent on a Salford Quays apartment, despite not declaring any income to HMRC for six years. In total Logan was linked to more than three kilos of cocaine, just over two kilos of heroin, six kilos of cannabis and also 5,000 ecstasy tablets. Gabriel was linked to 1.6 kilos of cocaine and 2.6 kilos of heroin.

Seven other men face lengthy jail sentences after more EncroChat messages exposed a plot to ‘hit back’ after a shooting in Salford, as well as deals to sell an AK47 and an Uzi sub machine gun and drugs conspiracies. Shaheed Virmani, from Swinton, was jailed for eleven years in September – the cocaine and cannabis dealer led a gang that supplied drugs on a commercial scale across the north west. He was said to have supplied large amounts of drugs to Spain-based dealer Usman Akhter.

Akhter – who lived a life of luxury in a Marbella villa called ‘Los Flamingos’ – controlled a ‘sophisticated network’ bringing hundreds of kilos of cocaine and cannabis into the region.

(C) Lancashire Police. Shaheed Virmani

The pair were among twelve people jailed for a combined 60 years. Virmani, 28, of Warren Drive, Swinton, Salford, was jailed for eleven years for conspiracy to supply cocaine and cannabis. Akhter – from Darwen – got 13 years.

Police said the gang used the ‘facade’ of a car sales business in Burnley, run by Akhter’s girlfriend, to provide vehicles, move drugs around and to explain large deposits of cash. Many others have also been jailed, and more will follow.

‘Lives have been saved by this’

Now, big-time villains will have to find another way to communicate secretly, something they have managed before and will no doubt achieve again. Before EncroChat phones came along, criminals used BlackBerry phones with PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption software.

Initially used by human rights activists, PGP devices were quickly adopted by criminals keen on thwarting the law. The software had a ‘remote wipe’ function, also known as a ‘kill pill’ where the content could be swiftly deleted. But police in Holland and Canada managed to hack the server in 2016.

They brought down one encryption network only for it to be replaced by EncroChat, a Dutch firm. When that server was breached by the Franco-Dutch investigation in the summer of 2020, one of the messages they uncovered said it all: “The police are winning this year.” For now, the police are indeed winning.

Detective Superintendent Neil Blackwood, head of the Serious and Organised Crime Group of GMP, said: “The takedown of EncroChat has provided law enforcement agencies across the UK – and beyond – with a unique opportunity to investigate high-level serious and organised criminality, and ensure suspects are taken into custody to be questioned about what we have found on this encrypted network.

“It’s fair to say the numbers have been staggering and there is no doubt lives have been saved as a result of the action undertaken by ourselves and policing partners across the UK, in partnership with the NCA.

“We’ve taken away millions of pounds in cash, huge quantities of drugs, firearms and assets, and our relentless task does not stop here; we have over 150 people waiting to be tried in court and we are determined to continue ridding Greater Manchester’s streets of those we suspect are involved in the criminal fraternity.”