Mobeen Azhar returns with a new BBC podcast, Catching the Kingpins, to tell the extraordinary story of how in 2020, the French police was able to hack into an encrypted messaging system called EncroChat and listen to the activities of hardened criminals who shared both the plans for their crimes as well as the more prosaic details of their lives.
Sharing this intelligence with police authorities across Europe provided vital insight into criminal activity that ultimately led to over 6,500 arrests and the seizure of more than 200 tonnes of drugs. This six-part podcast tells the story through the words of those involved in the UK policing operation.
DCI Driss Hayoukane was persuaded to delay his retirement from the Metropolitan Police to lead its EncroChat operation, where for two months during 2020, his officers could listen in to and read all the messages shared by criminals who paid thousands to own an EncroChat mobile phone.
“It was like being in a room with them and they are talking freely, and they don’t see you there,”DCI Driss Hayoukane, Met Police.
The conversations between Mobeen and Driss are fascinating, offering up an inside view of how the police operates. Driss talks candidly about how police operations work without giving away anything compromising, his insights reveal a criminal world where murder is talked about casually on EncroChat as its users thought no one could listen in. But they were wrong.
The providers of EncroChat – who are never clearly revealed – realised that the encryption had been compromised and urged all its users to shut down their phones and throw them away. The game was up but there was enough evidence to put thousands of criminals behind bars for many years.
Mobeen also presented the 900 degrees podcast about the 1985 Bradford City football stadium fire where 56 people died. He applies the same slow, thoughtful approach to Catching the Kingpins. He’s a Huddersfield native but ends up deeply immersed in London’s police force, talking to many of those involved in the painstaking activity it took to go through millions of messages. The role of the police data analysts comes out strongly as they look for insights and links within this mass of information.
Taking place during the depths of lockdown, the pandemic saw criminals confined to their homes but not prevented from planning for and carrying out crime. From the streets of Cardiff to the green belt wealth of Hertfordshire, this podcast shows the breadth of criminal activity enabled through EncroChat.
Mobeen says that the Met’s operation alone led to early 1000 arrests; over 400 convictions; the seizure of £19 million in cash, three tonnes of Class A and B drugs and 49 guns.
“The dismantling of EncroChat in 2020 sent shockwaves across organised criminal gangs in Europe and beyond. It helped to prevent violent attacks, attempted murders, corruption and large-scale drug transports, as well as obtain large-scale information on organised crime.”Europol, June 2023.
In June 2023, Europol provided an updated on the impact of dismantling EncroChat. As well as the large number of arrests and seizure class A drugs and pills, breaking the encryption in EncroChat led to the seizure of €739 million in cash, €154 million frozen in assets or bank accounts, nearly 1000 vehicles and a similar number of weapons. Convictions led to over 7000 years of imprisonment for criminals involved in crime uncovered through EncroChat.
All the episodes of Catching the Kingpins are available on BBC Sounds and it’s currently a weekly broadcast every Sunday at 1:30pm on BBC Radio 4.