London's drug lords got hacked. Did it matter?
Hundreds have now been jailed in Operation Eternal — but the city’s drug supply, purity and use seem untouched
Afternoon — three years ago detectives in London hit the motherlode: thousands of hacked messages that revealed the inner workings of the city’s organised crime networks. Since 2020 the Met Police has been busy making good on the EncroChat hack, a Europe-wide sting that’s led to hundreds of arrests in the capital. But while the force’s commanders have been celebrating the results this week, not everyone is so impressed. We take a look at the EncroChat hack’s legacy in London after your Sunday briefing below.
Plus: Clapham Uncommon, a bed bug update, and chicken shop envy.
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📣 Big shockwaves from the Israel-Hamas war rippled through London this week, with a sharp rise in hate crime, schools shutting over security concerns and a huge pro-Palestine rally in central London yesterday. The rally, organised by groups including the Stop the War Coalition and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, saw protestors march towards Downing Street to a stage with speakers that included former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Palestine ambassador to the UK Husam Zomlot. Ahead of the protest, the Met Police had put out a statement saying it’d recorded a significant increase in anti-Semitic hate crime in the past fortnight — 75 offences, compared to 12 in the same period last year. Incidents have included people being heckled and harassed in the street. Several Jewish schools in Barnet closed on Friday over safety fears around planned protests in support of Palestinians, though the Community Security Trust, a charity providing security advice to British Jews, had said schools should remain open. The Met also said it has recorded a recent rise in Islamophobic hate crime, with 54 offences in the past two weeks, versus 34 in the same period last year. Mayor Sadiq Khan has been visiting both London’s Jewish community as well as those doing humanitarian work supporting Palestinian civilians, and he wrote on Friday: “I know this is an extremely anxious time for Jewish and Muslim Londoners. There is no place in London for hatred.”
🎅 Police have issued 24 Covid fines in relation to that ‘jingle and mingle’ Christmas party attended by London Tory politicos during lockdown. The Met had reopened its investigation into the party after a new video surfaced this summer, which showed staff attached to Shaun Bailey’s London mayoral campaign partying while the rest of the capital was under Covid restrictions. Though Bailey is now Lord Bailey, having taken up a seat in the House of Lords, some of his staff are having a harder time dealing with the fallout. The woman seen dancing in the video was confronted by the Mirror earlier this month at the Conservative party conference in Manchester.
🐜 BED BUG WATCH 🐜 Videos purporting to show ‘bed bugs’ on London’s trains and buses continued to circulate this week, but TfL tells the Spy it’s still not detected anything legit yet. “We are not aware of any confirmed sightings of bedbugs on the transport network in London, but we are not complacent and we continue to closely monitor our network and take all possible precautionary measures,” a spokesperson told us on Friday. It’s all good business for London’s pest control firms though, who are apparently “inundated” with calls at the moment. Plus the pests might soon have another way to get to London from Paris, as a Spanish rail company has announced it’s planning to compete with Eurostar.
💰 Clapham Common has become the first area in the UK where average household incomes exceed £100,000. The latest official stats place the average household income for Clapham Common West in south London at £108,100, about three times the national average. It’s not as lavish as it sounds, though – the reason behind the record is partly down to the high numbers of house shares, with landlords squeezing as many young professionals as possible under one roof. Once you account for housing costs, taxes and different household sizes, it's actually Hans Town in Kensington that has the highest disposable income per household.
🎨 Duff reviews for Frieze, the posh annual London art fair that celebrated its 20th anniversary this week. The Guardian described the fair, which took place in Regents Park, as “a graveyard of creativity for tasteless one percenters”, which is “full of artists’ drab, desperate attempts to get bought by clueless rich collectors”. Striking a very different tone was City Hall and the Evening Standard, who marked the event by joining forces to launch a new arts campaign called “London Creates”, which is all about celebrating the “impact and legacy” of the city’s arts. In an article announcing the campaign, the paper cheered the fair’s impact, saying: “About 90,000 people are expected to attend, with more than 160 galleries from 40 different countries taking part, while the wider benefits can be seen throughout the art world.” Backing the campaign are renowned London art duo Gilbert and George, who designed the paper’s Wednesday front cover with a piece emblazoned with the words “Art For All”.
😬 Labour leader Keir Starmer and mayor Sadiq Khan have reportedly cleared the air at a meeting in London, after an awkward few weeks of being on different pages. The meeting saw both Starmer and Khan agree they needed to ‘improve communications’ between their offices. The two haven’t seen eye-to-eye as of late, especially since the fallout from the Uxbridge by-election, where Labour’s defeat was blamed on Khan’s ULEZ expansion, but they now at least seem committed to smoothing things over. The meeting wasn’t just about Khan, though. Also present were other high-profile mayors like Andy Burnham, as well as Keir’s new chief of staff Sue Gray, who apparently used the meeting to assure the mayors that devolution of powers would be her top priority in her new job.
🗳️ Talking of mayors, there’s a new mayoral hopeful in town. The ex-Tory mayoral candidate Natalie Campbell says she’ll be running as an independent after failing to make the shortlist for the Conservative Party. Campbell says that Susan Hall, who the Tories have chosen to take on Khan, is "a poor choice" who is "a terrible candidate" and will fight "a dog-whistle campaign". Amongst other things, Campbell says that if elected she’s committed to putting the proposed Bakerloo line extension "firmly back on the table".
🔎 And finally, we leave you with:
News that London’s vagina museum is reopening after meeting a fundraising target
An impressively complicated analysis of which parts of London need more Prets
Inside London’s biggest gangland sting
A triumphant tone from the Met Police this week as the force hailed the three tonnes of drugs and £19m in cash confiscated from kingpins across London in its biggest ever sting against organised crime. Operation Eternal has been simmering away since 2020, when an encrypted communications network used by much of the city’s underworld — EncroChat — was compromised in a hack carried out by French and Dutch authorities. On Monday the Met announced it’s now jailed more than 400 people in London using the hacked data, and further arrests are still expected. But others with eyes on the capital’s drug trade tell the Spy they’re less impressed by the op’s bottom line — supply and purity are untouched in London, and use is up.
The sheer volume of Op Eternal cases is staggering, though, and together they’ve laid bare the inner workings of London’s underworld. We’ve seen the mad money — like that of the multimillion drug empire run by the Hanna brothers, two men in their 50s based in Kent who had hired couriers from London to dish out £3.5m worth of cocaine. We’ve heard about gangsters striking deals with each other, such as the two east and west London gangs who joined forces to collectively import 100kg cocaine shipments. We’ve also seen what happens when underworld relations break down — a fixer based in Hackney was jailed for life for supplying a James Bond-style vintage pistol for a revenge killing. There’s been big egos on display — two dealers operating on the capital’s border in Essex imagined themselves as modern-day Kray twins — as well as elaborate evasion techniques — like a man who tried to import drugs hidden in a lorry transporting children’s toys.
The common theme to all the Op Eternal cases is just how untouchable those using EncroChat thought they were, and the Met’s special investigations team leveraged their carelessness when it began sifting through the hundreds of thousands of messages handed over by European authorities. After launching in 2016, EncroChat soon became a popular command and control system for crime barons given its security features — almost like WhatsApp, but involving a specially designed handset costing £2,000 — but French authorities had managed to hack into the service’s server and copy over the messages being sent. By June 2020, rumours had begun swirling in London’s underworld that the service had been compromised, and many kingpins fled abroad in an attempt to preempt the wave of arrests. But it was too late for those in gangland who’d already sent less-than-prudent messages. One gun dealer from Ealing who went by the handles SAVAGETOPS and EUROSANDPOUNDS on EncroChat was brought down by the fact he’d posted a selfie on the platform, along with his PlayStation username as he boasted about his gaming skills. In another case, a photo of a French Bulldog called Bob and the nametag on his collar proved crucial for identifying a Bromley drug lord. Sometimes the Met had to connect more dots — this July three men were jailed for conspiracy to supply cocaine in south east London, and amongst the evidence used against them were messages sent by one member of the crew under the handle OWNDRAGON. Mundane messages about doctor appointments and shopping errands on EncroChat were cross-referenced with Xieng Ly’s own personal calendar.
Exactly how many London gangsters were exposed by the hack isn’t clear, but we do know that around 10,000 of the 60,000 EncroChat users suspected of being involved in organised crime in Europe were based in the UK. There’s no doubt this gave the Met a very wide dragnet — so wide, in fact, that the force’s operation ended up uncovering cases in its own backyard. Most high profile was the case of former PC Kashif Mahmood, jailed at Southwark Crown Court in 2021 for using his police uniform and patrol car to take part in heists staged by organised criminals on rival drug gangs. Mahmood and his partners were apparently being directed by a mastermind in Dubai using EncroChat. Then there was the case of PC Rasvinder Agalliu, a former beauty queen turned Met officer who claimed she was completely in the dark about the fact her husband traded kilos of cocaine and cannabis through EncroChat. Agalliu never faced drug charges, but she was fired from the force, and her lavish lifestyle raised eyebrows — such as the flashy cars, posh house and bowl of cocaine she and her husband Julian kept by their bed.
All in all, Op Eternal has led to 942 arrests, 784 people charged and 426 convicted. That’s an arrest every two days and a conviction every three days on average since it launched in March 2020. And aside from the three tonnes of Class A and B drugs confiscated, the Met nabbed 49 guns and 755 pieces of ammunition. For police chiefs, that’s proof enough of the op’s success.
“Op Eternal is the most significant operation targeting organised crime figures in the Met’s history,” said commander Paul Brogden, who leads the force’s specialist crime command, in a statement this week. “The suspects in these investigations are dangerous criminals, many of whom play a key role in supplying kilos of drugs to street gangs whose activities blight and cause misery in communities across London.
“Every dangerous criminal jailed, and every gun and amount of drugs taken off the street as part of Op Eternal has served to make neighbourhoods in and around the capital safer.”
But others the Spy spoke to are more sceptical about the extent to which the op has really disrupted London’s drug trade. “From our drug market monitoring network, we’ve seen the EncroChat bust have minimal impact three years on,” Andre Gomes, communications lead at the UK’s oldest drug charity, Release, told us.
“We had seen that there was a temporary price hike and purity drop, but this stabilised soon after. We already knew that supply-side interventions like these busts have limited impact on drug availability: a 2017 Home Office report evaluating the effectiveness of such actions acknowledges that they’re ineffective at reducing supply.
“The bust was also happening during the pandemic, where drug use patterns were also changing as a response to lockdown. Our report on the drug markets during the pandemic showed that some people struggled to access their traditional suppliers, and that prices did rise a bit; however, they also show that purity remained roughly the same.
“The drug market is incredibly resilient to global lockdowns and police busts, no matter how important they advertise themselves to be.”
There’s another sign of that resilience at the moment: samples from London’s sewers. In July, the National Crime Agency — essentially Britain’s FBI — revealed that it’s now routinely examining wastewater in cities including London to get a clearer idea of drug use. And it’s most recent report found that in just a year, some areas have seen cocaine use increase by a quarter, amid low prices and a supply glut. A quick aside — the Spy actually requested a copy of the full report from the NCA via Freedom of Information, but we were rejected on the grounds that disclosure would undermine national security and public safety.
But there’s good reason to think kingpins may have found something else to protect their comms with. Someone familiar with London’s organised crime networks speaking to the Spy anonymously said: “When there is one form of tech that’s cracked, people either keep using it or move onto a new one. Happened with darknet markets, I’m sure that something will come after EncroChat. Communications tech is definitely needed.”
Until whatever that is also gets cracked, it sounds like the Met has plenty to be getting on with. “Our Op Eternal caseload remains significant, and many more cases are being progressed behind the scenes,” added commander Brogden in Monday’s statement. “We still have specialist teams working to attribute EncroChat handles to people; we are still making arrests regularly; and we still have more to do.
“Our message to criminals who operated on EncroChat and haven’t yet been visited by police is clear; we won’t stop until we have investigated all EncroChat handles, and it is only a matter of time before we knock on your door and arrest you.”
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