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A vehicle seized as a part of Operation Elbrus

Keeping Australia Safe in 2017

For the AFP, 2017 was a year of record-breaking investigations, unrelenting operational tempo, and arrests that would make headlines nationally and around the world.

In Sydney, AFP members disturbed a plan to smuggle an improvised explosive device onto an Etihad flight and uncovered one of the year's most notorious tax frauds. In Melbourne, members worked around the clock to disrupt a terrorist plot in the heart of the city and stopped the biggest methamphetamine haul in Australian history.

Let's take a look back at major year of Operations for the AFP...

It was Christmas Day, 2016 and the AFP's Sydney Office was humming as if it was any other day of the year.

The Joint Organised Crime Group was about to wrap up a two-and-a-half-year investigation, planning the arrest of 15 people for their alleged links to a number of cocaine importations, totalling in excess of 1.1 tonnes. If working on Christmas Day wasn't a sign of what was to come in the next 12 months, then nothing would give them a clue about their future.

For the AFP's largest regional office, 2017 was a year of record-breaking investigations, sustained and unrelenting operational tempo, and arrests that would make headlines around the world.

It was a year that continually tested the limits of members, according to AFP State Manager NSW Commander Chris Sheehan.

"The results achieved by the AFP and our partners in NSW this year have been outstanding," Commander Sheehan says.

"There can be no doubt the professionalism and dedication of our people have saved lives and made Australia a safer place.

"I am humbled by the resilience and commitment of our members here in NSW and by the incredible support they have been provided from across the AFP. 2017's achievements have shown the AFP at its finest."

Ask any member around NSW about what kept them busy in 2017, and the answers would take too long to list. But there were some jobs in particular that stand out.

Disruptive action... The sky high terror plot

It was labelled as one of the most sophisticated terror plots ever attempted on Australian soil – a plan to smuggle an improvised explosive device onto an Etihad flight from Sydney. When that attempt was aborted, the plan changed to instead create a chemical dispersion device, aimed at releasing toxic gas on board a flight.

From the time intelligence was received about the alleged plot in July, the NSW Joint Counter Terrorism Team knew they had to act swiftly. If carried out successfully, the plan could have led to hundreds of lives being lost.

The Joint Counter Terrorism Team (JCTT) responded quickly to launch a full-scale investigation, and while still waiting for the pieces of the puzzle to fall in place, took disruptive action. At the end, two people were charged. They are still currently before the courts in connection with the alleged terror plot.

AFP Coordinator of the NSW JCTT Detective Superintendent Ben McQuillan says it was a demanding time for all involved.

"We didn't know the scale of what we were dealing with at the time it started, but we knew that, if the intelligence was correct, there was an ongoing risk to public safety," Detective Superintendent McQuillan says.

"AFP forensics specialists and investigators were called in from around the country, and together with the resources and capabilities of our partner agencies, everyone grouped together to show an incredible level of commitment.

"We had to use every police power and capability we could muster to get the job done. The willingness of every AFP function, and all partner agencies, to provide every resource they had to bring about a safe and successful outcome, was the most satisfying element of the case for me."

At Sydney Airport, resources also had to be stepped up in the wake of the alleged threat.

For Acting Sydney Airport Police Commander Simone O'Mahony, this meant having to find people to cover additional shifts as the number of uniformed members in the terminals was doubled overnight. Police officers from Canberra Airport, as well as Protective Service Officers from Diplomatic Protection Unit, Defence, Parliament House and Official establishments in Canberra, were flown in to assist with policing Sydney Airport.

"The pressure on the teams was intense. They were patrolling with members they had never worked with before, dealing with the public's heightened state of fear and all with the media ever present and filming," says Acting Detective Superintendent O'Mahony.

"It was fantastic to see how rapidly the AFP was able to respond to a heightened security threat at an airport and the positive way members from different regions and portfolios worked together to respond to that threat."

Smashing the Dubai safe haven – the simultaneous operations

Bringing a major job to resolution at once involves an extensive amount of planning. Wrapping up two jobs at the one time, across three different countries? That seemed an insurmountable task.

In August, the AFP's organised crime team behind Operation Veyda, and the Joint Organised Crime Group behind Operation Astatine, coordinated one of the largest stings on Sydney's criminal underworld.

They were two separate and distinct investigations, which met when the alleged syndicate leaders all converged on the one place- Dubai.

For Operation Veyda, resolution on August 8 involved extensive support and extra resources from AFP offices across the country. More than 220 investigators, along with forensics specialists, tactical negotiators, and support services, arrived in Sydney from interstate to help bring it to a close.

A man being arrested by two officers
In August, the AFP's organised crime team and the Joint Organised Crime Group coordinated one of the largest stings on Sydney's criminal underworld.

Simultaneous arrests in Sydney, Dubai, and the Netherlands, brought down two interlinked organised crime syndicates who were allegedly attempting to import illicit drugs and illegal tobacco into Australia. It ended with 18 arrests, and thanks to the work of the AFP's international partners, the seizure of more than 1.9 tonnes of narcotics destined for Australian streets.

Looking back, Detective Superintendent Kirsty Schofield recalls the moment they heard the simultaneous arrests had taken place.

"The team had been planning that moment for months; they'd ran through so many different scenarios of how to get all the key players arrested at the same time. It was so good to see their excitement when it all finally came together," Detective Superintendent Schofield says.

On the same day, Operation Astatine wrapped up thanks to the work of the NSW Joint Organised Crime Group – comprising the NSW Police Force, Australian Border Force, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and the NSW Crime Commission – plus support from a range of other agencies, both domestically and internationally. This investigation netted nine people – eight in Australia, one in Dubai – allegedly trying to import 200kg of MDMA and illicit tobacco into Australia.

Apart from managing an investigation that had footprints across all corners of the globe, the JOCG had to manage another issue – allegations of corruption within a partner agency.

It's alleged two ABF members – one former, one current - were using their positions at the border to pass on information to the criminal network about whether incoming shipments were hot or not.

The AFP coordinator behind this investigation, Detective Superintendent Stephen Dametto, says the results would not have been possible without some key players – both in Australia and overseas.

"No one sees the dedication, determination and sacrifices investigators put into make sure a job so complex and politically-sensitive as this to make sure it goes smoothly. This investigation is a great example of a multi-agency investigation - both overseas and domestic - that dismantled a major alleged criminal syndicate in Australia that had been operating for a long time," he says.

"Ten people were arrested, over 280 kg of border controlled drugs, and over $5m in cash were seized. More importantly, the alleged head of the criminal syndicate was arrested and corruption at our border was disrupted. It was great work by all involved."

Planes, fast cars and fine wines – the tax fraud syndicate

For the average Australian, tax fraud is never usually a topic that sets tongues wagging. But when a syndicate, allegedly led by the son of an ATO Deputy Commissioner hit the news, the response could not have been estimated.

After eight months of painstaking evidence gathering, comprehension of complex company structures, and high stakes political sensitivities, the team behind Op Elbrus made their move in May. Over two days, more than 30 search warrants were executed – with day one alone involving 290 AFP officers.

The result was 10 arrests, and the seizure of tens of millions of dollars' worth of assets, including homes, luxury cars, motorbikes, boats and even aircraft, that would go on to become subject of proceeds of crime proceedings.

Tax fraud is never usually a topic that sets tongues wagging. But when a syndicate, allegedly led by the son of an ATO Deputy Commissioner hit the news, it was something else.

But for the team behind Operation Elbrus, the job was only just beginning at this point – as Detective Sergeant Kristie Cressy knows all too well.

"Our first brief service contained 22,000 pages of evidence – the equivalent of 90 lever arch folders worth of material," Detective Sergeant Cressy says.

Even when faced with this sort of volume, her team has still stayed focussed on the task ahead.

"The commitment is still there. It's easy to be burdened by the weight of such an extensive brief preparation period, but we are all invested and we want to see it through."

The after-waves of the drug importations

If one thing was learned from 2017, it was the insatiable demand for drugs in the community has shown no signs of slowing down, leading to a string of record-breaking seizures across the year by the AFP and its partner agencies.

For each seizure, this meant tonnes of forensics deconstructions to be done by the Sydney crime scene examiners.

When the NSW Organised Crime teams worked on Christmas Day last year, they were tracking a sailing vessel off the coast of NSW that launched an inflatable boat that motored into the Hawkesbury River. On board was approximately 500kg of cocaine, with an estimated street value of $100 million.

After the boat and drugs were seized and arrests were made, forensics were left with the task of examining the blocks of cocaine. All 500 of them – each wrapped in multiple layers of rubber, packing tape and plastic wrap that needed to be unravelled before the drugs could be examined. It took a week and about 30 staff to get the job done in early 2017.

An investigator taking photos of seized drugs
After the boat and drugs were seized and arrests were made, forensics were left with the task of examining the blocks of cocaine. All 500 of them.
A bag containing blocks of cocaine

State Manager NSW, Commander Sheehan, says it's the work that goes on behind the scenes that often flies under the radar.

"While the investigation and overt action phases are challenging and resource intensive often the really hard work begins after the arrests are made. One of the reasons we have been so successful this year is that every operational and support discipline has worked collaboratively together towards common goals.

"This cooperation has been critical in ensuring our operational activity ultimately translates into successful prosecutions or disruptions."

Two major criminal investigations led by AFP Melbourne Office were building to crescendo late last year, setting a high operational tempo for the start of 2017.

In December, surveillance of a suspicious Chinese vessel was well underway. Police watched as it sailed down the west coast of Australia, across the Great Australian Bight, and towards the Tasmanian coastline.

Police, defence, and border protection officers were tasked with intercepting the vessel. And so the chase across the thrashing southern seas began. Officers showed remarkable bravery in treacherous conditions to board the rogue vessel.

The vessel was successfully intercepted near Tasmania on 12 December. On-board was 186 kilograms of cocaine, worth about $60 million. The crew was detained and 10 foreign men were later charged with drug importation offences.

Two officers walking alongside a man
The vessel was intercepted near Tasmania - on-board was 186 kilograms of cocaine, worth about $60 million. Ten foreign men were later charged with drug importation offences.
Nine white bags that contained cocaine

The first phase of the investigation was wrapped up before Christmas. But there was much work to be done. The Victorian Joint Organised Crime Taskforce had its sights on two criminal syndicates allegedly working together to import and distribute cocaine in Australia. The focus of the investigation shifted from the Apple Isle to mainland Australia.

Christmas was creeping closer. It was late on 17 December when another investigation arrived at its most critical stage.

The Victorian Joint Counter Terrorism Team was working around the clock to disrupt a plot to shatter the heart of Melbourne. At dusk on Saturday, the AFP, Victoria Police, and ASIO swooped on properties in the North West Metro Region. Four men were handcuffed, and charged with planning coordinated terror attacks on the city's most famous landmarks.

The two critical investigations were running 24 hours, and AFP Melbourne Office was abuzz. Routine duties were paused as police, Protective Service Officers, and professional staff pitched in to extinguish the threat to community safety.

Commander John Beveridge, AFP State Manager Victoria and Tasmania, said strategic planning, lateral thinking, and comradery were essential to the success of both operations.

"We saw both investigations coming to a-head at Christmas and both required immediate action," Commander Beveridge said.

"The state management team met to prioritise, plan, and allocate our resources. When there are significant jobs happening simultaneously, we have to take the time to map how things are going to play out. We used a combination of traditional and innovative strategies to get the most out of our people and assets. Part of our approach was to use technologies, such as geofencing, to free up manpower."

He added: "In the thick of things around Christmas time, we had to find accommodation in Tasmania for 30 officers deployed to investigate the cocaine importations. A lot of the hotels were full because of the Tasmania food festival and Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. We had to adapt and improvise and, in the end, housed our people in the Tasmania Police college as well as hotels."

Commander Beveridge was impressed to see the office work together as a well-oiled machine.

"We relied on all areas of expertise, whether that was technical capabilities, HR, intelligence, or forensics – everyone jumped in to help and all the ‘cogs' had an important role to play. The team's resilience and can-do attitude were high points," he said.

"I was proud of the commitment and dedication of our people. They cancelled Christmas parties and personal commitments to ensure things ran smoothly. You make many sacrifices in this job, but you do so to keep the community safe."

During this time, another two Crime Operations container importations were also being monitored.

In mid-January, the Victoria Joint Organised Crime Taskforce progressed the second phase of their investigation into cocaine importations. Fifteen search warrants were conducted in Melbourne and Queensland, and six men were charged for their role in the syndicate.

Another large-scale investigation was then thrown into the mix. It resulted in the biggest seizure of methamphetamine in Australia's history, weighing almost 903 kilograms. Commander Beveridge said the investigation was complex and unfolded rapidly.

"It required a vigorous and flexible response from our people, and collaboration with our domestic and international law enforcement partners - our relationships are vital to combatting transnational criminal syndicates," he said.

A female investigates a seizure of methamphetamine
An operation resulted in the biggest seizure of methamphetamine in Australia's history, weighing almost 903 kilograms.

Teamwork between AFP regional offices was crucial in 2017. A joint investigation began late last year when a consignment containing more than 350 kilograms of methamphetamine and cocaine arrived in Melbourne from South Africa. A controlled delivery saw the consignment transported to Sydney. Four men were arrested in February 2017.

"There was an interstate nexus to this investigation, which meant we worked closely together with our colleagues in AFP Sydney Office to put these men before court," Commander Beveridge said.

"This criminal syndicate was known to us, and had connections across the globe – we believe the haul was a mixture of Chinese Ice and Colombian cocaine – so strong networks with our external partners were important too."

Around 680 members currently operate from AFP Melbourne Office, 10 per cent of the AFP's entire workforce.

In July and August, around 90 Melbourne-based staff travelled to NSW to assist AFP Sydney Office with two significant operations: the disruption of a plot to commit a terror attack using an improvised device, and the dismantling of a global criminal syndicate allegedly involved in the importation of drugs and illicit tobacco.

A large package wrapped in black plastic
A joint investigation began late last year when a consignment containing more than 350 kilograms of methamphetamine and cocaine arrived in Melbourne from South Africa.

"Deployments like these are great for building rapport across the organisation because you work together with people you normally wouldn't come across," Commander Beveridge said.

"There's a huge volume of work to get through, but the staff all have to eat so there's an important social aspect too. It's great for morale and a sense of unity across the AFP."

Heading into 2017, AFP Melbourne Office was carrying nearly 500 cases. Among them was an investigation into a high-level, international organised criminal group. Seven men were arrested in Melbourne, and 92 kilograms of cocaine worth $30 million was seized.

"This job required an unprecedented application of AFP and partner capabilities in a country that had never let any other country operate in," Commander Beveridge said.

In June, attention turned to the AFP's presence in the aviation environment. Shortly before midnight, the AFP responded to reports a man on-board a flight from Melbourne to Malaysia had a bomb.

"This was a very difficult and complex matter, which fell under the various state and Commonwealth legislation," Commander Beveridge said.

"As the uniformed policing presence at Melbourne Airport, we provided the first response. We worked closely with Victoria Police to examine multiple sources of information received through official channels and via social media. Our people responded very professionally, and the matter was resolved safely."

Separately, a teenager pled guilty this year to serious offences related to the alleged unlawful interference with commercial aircraft radio in Melbourne.

"This investigation was undertaken by members from a number of business areas in Melbourne and at AFP headquarters in Canberra, all of whom demonstrated excellent lateral thinking to identify and obtain strong evidence against the suspect," Commander Beveridge said.

"That's why we do this job – to hold criminals to account, and to keep the community safe."