Nineteen men have been charged, and thirteen vulnerable Australian children were rescued from a sophisticated online child abuse network as a result of a joint investigation led by the Australian Federal Police.
Codenamed “Operation Bakis”, the landmark operation — that merged efforts of the AFP and state and territory police forces — has struck a resounding blow against a shadowy network haunting the internet’s darkest corners.
The origins of Operation Bakis can be traced back to the tragic events of 2021, when two FBI agents met a violent end while investigating the network’s heinous activities in Florida.
FBI special agents Daniel Alfin and Laura Schwartzenberger were shot and killed outside an apartment that February, preparing to execute a search warrant for child abuse material on suspect David Lee Huber, the shooter.
Still undeterred, the FBI rallied its forces and initiated an international campaign to bring these offenders to justice.
Building upon the grim legacy of those lost agents, the AFP-coordinated investigation sprang into action in 2022 after the FBI shared vital intelligence with the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE).
This crucial tip-off pointed toward Australian members of a peer-to-peer network operating in the depths of the dark web, where unfathomable acts of child abuse were being facilitated and exchanged.
The modus operandi of this network was chillingly sophisticated. It employed encrypted communication channels where members shared files, engaged in anonymous discussions on message boards, and accessed websites dedicated to their depraved activities.
Using cunning encryption techniques and other evasive tactics, they sought to remain hidden from the grasp of law enforcement, allowing their reprehensible actions to persist unchecked.
It has emerged that many of these alleged offenders held positions requiring an advanced understanding of information and communication technology.
These individuals, some of whom are accused of producing their own horrifying material to share within the network, were employed in roles that demanded an intricate knowledge of digital systems – a juxtaposition between their professional lives and the malevolent secrets they allegedly harboured.
Operation Bakis saw the AFP-led ACCCE working hand-in-hand with various state police forces, including ACT Policing, New South Wales Police Force, Queensland Police Service, South Australia Police, Tasmania Police, and Western Australia Police Force.
The joint effort culminated in a sweeping crackdown that has left the network in disarray.
Among those who have been charged, two Australian offenders have already been sentenced, while others await their day in court.
The alleged offenders were aged between 32 to 81 years old, casting a shadow over the breadth of the network’s reach.
Some of the rescued children had suffered direct abuse while others were removed from their environments as a precautionary measure to ensure their safety.
A breakdown of the impact by state reveals the magnitude of the operation’s success.
In the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), five children were rescued from harm’s way, and two alleged offenders are now facing a staggering 54 charges.
In New South Wales (NSW), two children were spared from harm, and five alleged offenders now face 13 charges.
Similarly, Queensland saw four children rescued, while five alleged offenders have copped 45 charges.
The crackdown extended to South Australia, where two children were safeguarded, and five alleged offenders now face 16 charges.
In Tasmania and Western Australia, the law has set its sights on one alleged offender in each state, both facing five charges.
The international reach of this network is further underscored by the FBI’s parallel investigation, which led to the arrest of 79 individuals globally.
AFP Commander Helen Schneider emphasised the operation’s core mission of safeguarding children and ensuring justice for survivors.
She extolled the collaboration between the AFP-led ACCCE and the FBI.
Commander Schneider underscored the relentlessness of the pursuit of justice, asserting that those who exploited encryption and the dark web would not escape the grasp of law enforcement.
“Criminals using encryption and the dark web are a challenge for law enforcement, but Operation Bakis shows that when we work together we can bring alleged offenders before the courts,” Commander Schneider proclaimed.
She denounced the despicable allegations made against those charged in the operation, emphasising the urgency of halting alleged cycles of abuse.
“Viewing, distributing or producing child abuse material is a horrific crime, and the lengths that these alleged offenders went to in order to avoid detection makes them especially dangerous – the longer they avoid detection the longer they can perpetuate the cycle of abuse,” she said.
“The success of Operation Bakis demonstrates the importance of partnerships for law enforcement, at a national level here in Australia, but also at an international level.”
FBI Legal Attaché Nitiana Mann echoed this sentiment, praising the longstanding partnership between the AFP and the FBI.
“We are proud of our longstanding relationship with the Australian Federal Police, resulting in 19 Australian men facing criminal prosecution as a result of our collaborative investigation,” she said.
“The complexity and anonymity of these platforms means that no agency or country can fight these threats alone.
“As we continue to build bridges through collaboration and teamwork, we can ensure the good guys win and the bad guys lose.”
ACT Policing’s Detective Inspector Stephanie Leonard praised the collaborative intelligence sharing underpinning the operation.
In addition, Detective Superintendent Linda Howlett of the NSW Police Force’s State Crime Command’s Child Abuse Squad sternly warned those who prey on the vulnerable.
“If you choose to offend against children, it is only a matter of time before police come knocking on your door,” she asserted.