National Press Club address - 28 July 2021

Delivered by Mr Reece P Kershaw, APM, Commissioner, Australian Federal Police on Wednesday 28 July, 2020.


Good afternoon.

I would like to show my respect and acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today.

I pay my respect to Elders past, present and emerging. 

I would also like to extend my respect to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.

I would also like to acknowledge:

  • Mr Julian Simmonds MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement
  • Mr Mick Gentleman MLA, ACT Minister for Police and Emergency Services
  • Mr Anthony Russo, Legal Attaché for the Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Mr Brian Pontifex, Head of Government Relations for Rio Tinto and member of my Advisory Panel
  • Department of Home Affairs Secretary, Mike Pezzullo
  • Australian Border Force Commissioner, Michael Outram
  • Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission CEO, Mike Phelan
  • Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director-General of Security, Mike Burgess
  • AUSTRAC CEO, Nicole Rose
  • Office of the Special Investigator Director-General, Chris Moraitis
  • Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre CEO, Rachael Falk
  • Former AFP Commissioner, Andrew Colvin;
  • AFPA President, Alex Caruana; and
  • The National Press Club

About a year ago, I stood at this podium and I sent a direct warning to criminals.

I said the Australian Federal Police: “Will be relentless. We will outsmart you and we will always be a step ahead”.

I declared, “The full force of the Australian Federal Police is coming for you”.

When I made those remarks, the AFP – together with the FBI – was covertly undertaking what has been referred to in Australia, as the “sting of the century”.

Back then, we knew Operation Ironside would be significant, but the breadth and the scale of drug trafficking and other criminality uncovered has been staggering.

Operation Ironside, a milestone in the AFP’s 40-year history, has been the largest organised crime operation in the Southern Hemisphere.

The AFP is like no other agency in this country because of our international reach and our partnerships.

We are the only agency that can take action across the spectrum of the drug business model – we can attack drug traffickers’ operations, logistics, finances and communications – both onshore and offshore.

However, Operation Ironside was only made possible because of the AFP’s law enforcement relationships built over decades, our presence in 33 countries, our technical capabilities and reputation as one of the most respected police forces in the world.

Significant cooperation by state law enforcement and federal agencies was also integral and I would like to thank my counterparts, especially the Australian Border Force and the Australian Criminal lntelligence Commission, for their support.

Operation Ironside was enabled through a new dedicated encrypted communications platform, named AN0M, which we were ready to release into the criminal marketplace.

While the FBI controlled and owned AN0M, that in itself would never have been enough to identify and bring to justice those criminals using the platform.

For years, a small team within the AFP and the FBI had planned law enforcement’s Holy Grail: seeing what criminals were planning over encrypted communications in real time, and without them even knowing.

AFP officers, who were relentless with finding this Holy Grail, would walk into their bunker every day and be greeted by a message one of them had scrawled on a white board: The obstacle is the way.

It was a shortened version of the Marcus Aurelius quote, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”.

They lived, dreamed and even in their own time toiled away to find the way through.

Those AFP members were the ones who provided the ingenuity to read decrypted messages in real time.

That break through, with the platform secretly run by the FBI, has been devastatingly effective.

Many of those offenders who I had in mind last year when I declared the “AFP is coming”, are now facing jail terms’ that carry life imprisonment.

Collectively, these alleged drug traffickers, violent criminals and money launderers are facing hundreds of years in jail.

Others will soon receive a knock at their door from law enforcement– whether they are in Australia or overseas.

As of the 25th of July, Operation Ironside has charged 289 offenders with 724 charges – the majority relating to drug crime.

Almost 5 tonnes of drugs and 138 firearms and weapons, including military-grade automatic firearms and power gel explosives, have been seized.

And during the life of Operation Ironside, more than $49 million in ill-gotten cash has been seized.

The AFP-led Criminal Assets Confiscation Team restrained about $19 million in assets, including bank accounts, real estate, luxury handbags, high-end watches, cryptocurrency and cars – including a Holden VL Walkinshaw and a Shelby Mustang in climate-controlled vehicle bubbles.

When AFP officers explained court-issued proceeds of crime orders were civil court orders and not criminal arrest warrants, one alleged offender stated: “This is worse than going to jail, you’re going to take my houses”.

The court orders targeted outlaw motorcycle gang leadership, illicit drug syndicates, AN0M device distributors, Italian organised crime and trusted insiders, like baggage handlers and postal workers.

These workers who have knowledge of logistics chains and facilitate crime for organised crime syndicates are a focus for the AFP.

The AFP is methodically identifying these trusted insiders who are working for criminals.

Intelligence reveals trusted insiders charged between 15 to 25 per cent of the drugs they were moving around the country.

Divers, who placed or retrieved drug packages, would take a cut of between 10 and 15 per cent.

I can reveal today that 29 trusted insiders have been arrested under Operation Ironside.

At least 20 of those arrested had previously held an aviation or maritime security identification card.

Private sector employees included freight forwarding and logistics companies, couriers, trucking firms, those working at ports, airports and mail centres. 

Lawyers, accountants, and some government officials have also been identified as enablers of Australia’s multi-billion-dollar drug trafficking industry.

AN0M was a small platform but it has provided us with a front row seat into transnational serious organised crime – or TSOC as it is known.

The acronym TSOC is used by law enforcement agencies but that terminology fails to properly explain the danger those criminals present to our community.

They are Australian outlaw motorcycle gangs, Italian organised crime, Asian Triads and Mexican cartels who launder their drug profits through money laundering organisations.

They are ambivalent to the misery caused by illicit drugs, or if civilians are killed in the crossfire of their drug wars.

A patched member’s ideology is unadulterated greed through the relentless trafficking of illicit drugs.

It drives them, they recruit for it and they kill for it.

That ideology has killed more Australians than terrorism. A terrorist attack pierces the heart of our democracy, shatters our confidence and fuels fear.

The impact of TSOC is akin to death by a thousand cuts.

Not only do our communities haemorrhage from illicit drug use but these violent, trigger-happy, organised criminals also strike at the heart of our democracy by undermining our national security, our economy, social security system, and our social cohesion, especially in regional communities.

Threats to life will always be a priority for the AFP – whether that is from a lone wolf attack or an attack by the Lone Wolf Motorcycle Gang.

Australia has many lines of defence, including; the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Border Force, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, AUSTRAC, and of course, the Australian Federal Police.

These are our national security defenders which protect our country from well-resourced, coordinated, global criminals who undermine our democracy and rule of law. 

But whether it is from foreign interference, terrorism, child predators or state-sponsored or syndicate-led cyber criminals who attack our critical infrastructure or cripple our financial institutions for ransom, the AFP is uniquely placed to ensure we protect and guard Australia’s national security.

The enduring and emerging crimes that threaten to undermine our national security are the AFP’s priorities:

  • Counter terrorism and espionage and foreign interference;
  • Child exploitation;
  • Cyber;
  • Fraud; and
  • Transnational serious organised crime.

But to beat the organised crime that has the nefarious ability to undermine our way of life and create chaos requires ever-evolving legislation, technology, investment and a deep understanding of the criminal environment.

And that’s why Operation Ironside has been so important – it has helped Australian law enforcement, our Five Eyes partners and other global law enforcement agencies to strengthen the lines of defence that protect our countries.

For law enforcement focussed agencies, national security intelligence is indispensable.

And intelligence from Operation Ironside revealed one outlaw motorcycle gang was making $21 million a month from selling illicit drugs.

One kilogram of methamphetamine is bought for about $1800 in Myanmar and sold wholesale in Australia for between $63,000 and $150,000.

One kilogram of cocaine costs about $2300 in Colombia and is sold domestically here for between $220,000 and $450,000.

Almost one-third of alleged offenders arrested under Operation Ironside were outlaw motorcycle gang members or people working for them.

Of those arrested, three-quarters are Commanchero members or supporters.

Nearly all of the 21 threats to life identified by Operation Ironside were directly linked to outlaw motorcycle gangs.

One outlaw motorcycle gang planned to kill a family of five because they could not find a relative of theirs who failed to pay a drug debt.

And if an alleged Commanchero plan to murder an associate with a fully automatic submachine gun at a busy café strip was not intercepted on AN0M, it is very likely families would have been collateral damage.

That military-grade weapon was capable of firing more than 10 rounds a second. We may have faced the biggest loss of civilian life in recent history.

As a country, we must be honest about the effects of illicit drugs and the unspeakable crimes they cause.

Some of these crimes are so confronting that when the news of these harrowing cases break, they make us instinctively check where our kids are, or pick up the phone to speak to a loved one.

I can’t imagine the heavy grief of the parents whose children were killed and injured by a motorist in Sydney’s west in February 2020.

When I was informed about that horrific tragedy, I remember feeling a moment of great sadness. Four children killed – three injured.

I think most parents went home and hugged their children a little harder and for a little longer that day.

A feeling of utter shock was also shared by the nation when four brave Victorian police officers were killed by a truck driver on Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway in April 2020.

Sadly, there are many more examples.

And, after the grief, there’s the outrage and demand for justice.

But there is a common thread.

The Sydney driver, now jailed for killing those four children, had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit but also had cocaine and MDMA in his system at the time of the crash.

The now-jailed truck driver was high on methamphetamine at the time he killed four brave Victorian police officers and they will not be forgotten.

There is no concept of personalised use of drugs; one user’s actions can have far-reaching consequences for those around them – loved ones or strangers.

The 2021 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Alcohol, Tobacco & Other Drugs in Australia report said deaths involving methamphetamine and other stimulants are increasing in Australia.

The report found a rapid increase in the number of deaths involving methamphetamine and other stimulants, with the death rate in 2019, four times higher than that in 2000.

Methamphetamine-related deaths alone almost doubled during the seven years between 2009 and 2015.

The most common manner of methamphetamine-related death was accidental drug toxicity.

However, natural disease such as coronary disease, stroke, kidney and liver disease together with suicide and accidents comprised more than half.

But it is the addiction to illicit drugs – especially methamphetamine – that is truly horrifying.

There are too many cases where children are going hungry or neglected because their parents are continuously feeding their addiction. 

As a society, we have to ensure parents are not buying meth over milk.

I’m told there’s little more gut-wrenching than hearing a newborn wail as they struggle with withdrawing from methamphetamine.

One child born to meth-addicted parents is one child too many.

In one state in Australia, methamphetamine is now a major factor in 39 per cent of cases where a child must be taken into care – an increase of more than 30 per cent in just two years.

Most drug users need to get their drugs from someone, and overwhelmingly there is a direct link to transnational serious organised crime.

Every drug trafficker and organised criminal charged by the AFP ensures our communities are safer.

First responders and our front-line workers – whether they are police, nurses, doctors, paramedics or teachers – should be able to go to work without being violently assaulted by an uncontrollable addict.

And parents should be able to drive their kids to school – or let their kids go and buy an ice cream –without the fear a loaded weapon behind the wheel of a car could change their lives forever.

We also need to think about what drug manufacturing does to our environment.

So-called party drugs are made with so many corrosive chemicals that in the countries they are made the earth is left scorched and local waterways are poisoned.

Trees and plants are felled to extract precursors such as safrole for MDMA production or ephedrine for methamphetamine production.

Waste materials used to make drugs are burned to conceal illegal activity, creating extra pollutants.

As a country we have made great strides in healthier living – more exercise, drinking less, being sun smart and giving up tobacco – yet too many are ignoring the damage that illicit drugs do to our bodies and our minds.

There are a variety of commentators who have a position on illicit drugs.  This is a policy matter for governments. But what Operation Ironside has proven is that organised crime will not stop targeting our community while Australians’ appetite for illicit drugs remains so high.

Illicit drugs continue to embolden organised crime, makes them richer and enables them to buy more guns and pay for more murders.

This is the link we need to impress upon the community – opening the flood gates to illicit drugs is a beacon for those syndicates and cartels that makes Australia a less safe and less fair society.

It undermines our national security.

Today, I have a series of calls to action.

First, if you take illicit drugs, please seek the necessary help to stop.

Equally, if you are aware of someone selling or trafficking drugs please alert law enforcement – it could save your life or that of a loved one.

To parents. We still need you to have conversations with your children about the dangers of illicit drugs. And apart from health concerns, talk to them about how life-limiting it can be if they are charged with possession.

It could rule them out of their dream job or holidaying overseas because convictions could prevent them from entering another country.

Finally, to the community at large.

We need you to be engaged in this debate and think of it through the prism of how drug users are arming and bankrolling murderers, enabling violence in our suburbs and ruining the lives of our children.

Each dollar spent on illicit drugs facilitates a supply chain of violence and horror stretching from our community all the way overseas.

We will only be able to take the profit out of the drug trade when there’s no or little demand.

Meantime, the AFP, with its law enforcement partners both here and offshore, are whole-heartedly committed to arresting and disrupting the criminals who facilitate the illicit drug trade and other organised criminal activity.

Because of other dedicated encrypted communication services, we don’t know the full breadth of transnational serious organised crime in Australia.

But intelligence from Operation Ironside revealed there were 10 tonnes of drugs with a street value of $10 billion heading to Australia when the AFP and our state partners went to resolution. That’s 10 tonnes.

Those shipments were coming from Spain, Ecuador, Hong Kong, Brazil and Malaysia.

Our intelligence indicates those drug ventures distributing methamphetamine and cocaine have been abandoned.

It is likely some of it is at the bottom of the ocean.

Back in Australia, Operation Ironside has rattled organised crime.

They are worried about who is watching or listening to their communications so some have returned to drug deals of the old days – in their swim wear at the beach having face-to-face conversations to show they do not have a listening device on their body.

We also know drug prices have been impacted by Operation Ironside. In some states the street value of illicit drugs has increased by up to 50 per cent.

And I can reveal today that a drug venture transporting cocaine to Australia wants to charge double the amount because of Operation Ironside.

Criminals in Australia linked to AN0M have changed addresses and their vehicles to evade police.

And we know, Ciphr – which sells dedicated hardened encrypted devices – is refusing to renew subscriptions in Australia because it does not want to be associated with criminality.

This makes it harder for drug traffickers, money launderers and violent offenders to communicate on encrypted devices.

We are under no illusion that we have a challenge in front of us that will require new laws, better tech and new investment to keep Australians safe and protect Australia’s interests.

To ensure we can continue to outsmart these criminals, emerging technology, intelligence and surveillance capabilities will be necessary.

More arrests and disruptions will come as a result of Operation Ironside and our broader efforts, but it won’t be enough to stem the tsunami of drugs coming into the country.

However, in keeping with a tradition I started last year at the National Press Club, I will provide another warning to organised criminals, outlaw motorcycle gangs, drug traffickers, money launderers and those who believe they will get away with their crimes.

The AFP has another ingenious plan – in fact it was well underway before we revealed Operation Ironside.

We won’t tell you what it is. The only thing I will tell you is that we are coming.

Again.

National Security Hotline

Read the AFP Annual Report 2019-20

The Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation

Platypus Online: Read. Discover. Enjoy.