Geopolitics

Police Decode EncroChat: The Whatsapp For Organized Crime

Decoded data from messaging services have given the authorities in Germany a new weapon in the fight against gang crime, as shown in the latest raid in Berlin. Criminal families are feeling increasingly uneasy.

Police called EncroChat the 'Whatsapp for gangsters.'
Police called EncroChat the "Whatsapp for gangsters."
Sebastian Gubernator

BERLIN — They arrived in the early morning. Some 500 police officers from Berlin and Brandenburg, officers from the state criminal investigation department, the riot squad and the counter-terrorism and special operations unit GSG 9. They stormed houses, apartments and a convenience store in Berlin, as well as two locations in Brandenburg. As they later announced without any fanfare, 30 search warrants were executed at 22 locations. Two men were arrested, members of the Remmo clan, an Arab gang made up of one extended family.

The raid targeted suspects accused of organized arms and drug deals, assault and tax evasion, among other crimes. The perpetrators were suspected of storing drugs in warehouses in Brandenburg, packing them into barrels and transporting them to Berlin.

What took place under cover of darkness that Thursday morning was another strike against organized crime in Berlin. In November 1,600 officers were deployed there to track down jewels stolen from the Green Vault museum in Dresden. The Remmos are also suspected of being behind the theft. But what do these raids mean for the broader fight against gang crime?

The criminals thought they were safe from police monitoring, so they communicated with each other freely.

A few years ago, it seemed to many observers that members of certain extended families were untouchable. Benjamin Jendro from the police trade union remembers a time when criminals went unchecked, without fear of consequences. They sold shisha without paying duty and went to the job center wearing Rolexes on their wrists. No one reported them because they didn't dare, or they thought it was pointless. Even when a clan member found himself in court, says Jendro, he often got away with nothing more than probation.

The main suspect arrested by police on Thursday is also thought to have benefited from state leniency. Der Spiegel reports that he is a 44-year-old male originally from Beirut. He came to Berlin with his family in 1982 and, in 1995, was sentenced to more than 4 years in juvenile detention for dealing heroin. The authorities said he had "not successfully integrated into the local culture" and ordered him to leave Germany "for reasons of public security". However, according to Der Spiegel, he has not been deported for the last 25 years because of missing travel documents from his home country.

In the meantime, the authorities have changed tack. In 2018, the Berlin Senate and police set out a five-point plan for combating gang crime. It included punishing smaller misdemeanors, seizing criminal assets, preventing money laundering, helping ex-gang members to build new lives and improving cooperation between different authorities. Other German states have also started targeting certain extended families. Politicians speak of a "strategy of a thousand cuts'. The idea being that one little cut may not hurt, but many do.

So the police are now repeatedly storming apartment buildings, searching homes, taking away computers and arresting suspects. In autumn and winter, four of the Remmo clan were arrested on suspicion of being involved in the Green Vault jewelry theft. A fifth suspect from the family is still on the run.

Last year there were 240 police operations targeting gang crime in Berlin — Photo: Jan Scheunert/ZUMA Wire

But there was something new about Thursday's raid. As senior public prosecutor Thorsten Cloidt explained, the arrests were the result of decoding data from messaging service EncroChat. The message records were sent to Berlin by the French authorities via the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation. They raised urgent suspicions, which led to the arrest warrants.

Of course, the police have always had knowledge of serious crimes, drug deals and arms deals, says Cloidt. "But not with the same clarity that we now have through EncroChat." The criminals thought they were safe from police monitoring, so they communicated with each other freely.

Police had called this messaging service "Whatsapp for gangsters'. It has since shut down. Last year, Dutch and French security agencies intercepted more than 20 million private messages. Their infiltration of EncroChat's infrastructure sent "shockwaves through organized crime gangs across Europe", according to the authorities.

And this included the Berlin clans. "Raids make the gang members uneasy, they destabilize the gang scene," says Jendro. "We are seeing a lot of searches. It's not just about serious crimes, but also minor misdemeanors. That's at the heart of the strategy." No one likes it when a hundred-strong police force storms their shisha bar, or their car is seized.

It's a powder keg waiting to explode.

Jendro thinks it's good that the police are now targeting criminal clans more strongly, but he says there is also a danger. "If we focus solely on these Arab extended families, that then benefits other organized crime groups – the Italians, the Russians, the biker gangs." He says the police need more officers if they are going to be effective.

In Berlin, it is already clear that other groups play a role and that the different gangs are often in conflict with one another. The spark for the latest raid was a power struggle between the Remmo clan and Russian nationals with Chechen origins. Towards the end of 2020, the two groups often clashed with each other.

On Nov. 7, a group of Chechens armed with clubs and knives attacked a convenience store in the Neukölln borough of Berlin. The store is thought to be linked to the Remmo clan. Shortly afterward, a Chechen was attacked by a group of men at a station in the north of Berlin. The 44-year-old main suspect in the raids is believed to have been involved, although, according to the public prosecutor's office, he was being monitored and had an electronic ankle tag.

Members of the Chechen gangs used to be seen by police as "mercenaries', formerly at the service of the clans. They looked after protection racketeering, for example. Over the last few years, however, they have increasingly tried to compete with their former bosses, which has led to territorial disputes. "It's a powder keg waiting to explode," says Jendro. "Two groups that have access to weapons are clashing with each other – and they accept deaths as collateral damage."

Last year there were 240 police operations targeting gang crime in Berlin, said Geisel – two every three days.

After Thursday's raid, Berlin's State Minister of the Interior Andreas Geisel (SPD) was even more determined: "We will see this through. We will not take a backward step in the fight against organized crime. No matter who is controlling it."

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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