Close to 100 people have been arrested in Australia and the United States in connection with a global online child abuse network uncovered in the aftermath of a high-profile murder of two FBI agents, authorities announced this week.
The myriad charges for alleged child abuse stem from the, Daniel Alfin and Laura Schwartzenberger, who were fatally shot in 2021 while serving a warrant in Sunrise, Florida, to search the apartment of a suspect allegedly tied to a case involving .
The deaths of Alfin and Schwartzenberger, who both specialized in investigating crimes against children, spurred a wider international probe into an illicit online platform whose members are accused of sharing child abuse material on the dark web, according to the Australian Federal Police.
Nineteen Australians, whose ages range from 32 to 81 years old, were recently charged for their alleged involvement in what the agency described in a news release as a "sophisticated" digital network. Members are believed to have produced, searched for and distributed images and videos of child abuse material on the dark web, officials said.
Two people have been sentenced in Australia for their ties to the massive investigation, while the others have active cases in court, according to the federal police. In addition to the 19 arrests, authorities also removed 13 Australian children from harm over the course of the probe. Federal police allege some of those children were "directly abused" and others were removed as a precaution.
Called "Operation Bakis," the joint investigation involving state and local authorities in various parts of Australia ran alongside a U.S. investigation led by the FBI. The FBI investigation has so far led to the arrests of 79 people allegedly connected to the online network, the Australian Federal Police said. That probe has led to the convictions of 43 people for child abuse offenses, the Associated Press reported.
The suspects — who were arrested across Australia, including in the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia — collectively face 138 charges related to the investigation. One suspect described as a "public servant" by federal police was already sentenced to 14 1/2 years in prison in June after pleading guilty to 24 charges. The same month, a call center operator on the NSW Central Coast was sentenced to five years after pleading guilty to possession of an estimated five terabytes of child abuse material.
"The success of Operation Bakis was only possible because of the close working relationship between the AFP-led ACCCE [Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation] and the FBI, and our dedicated personnel who never give up working to identify children who are being sexually assaulted or living with someone who is sharing child abuse material," said Australian Federal Police Commander Helen Schneider in a statement.
Schneider added that "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."
Most of the suspects in Australia worked in jobs that required a high degree of knowledge in the field of information communications technology, the federal police said, noting that alleged members of the online platform "used software to anonymously share files, chat on message boards and access websites within the network." The suspects are accused of using methods like encryption to remain anonymous online and avoid being identified by law enforcement.
Both Australian and U.S. authorities noted that the success of Operation Bakis hinged on cooperation between agencies in both countries.
"The complexity and anonymity of these platforms means that no agency or country can fight these threats alone," FBI legal attaché Nitiana Mann said in a separate statement. "As we continue to build bridges through collaboration and teamwork, we can ensure the good guys win and the bad guys lose."
Mann said the FBI alerted authorities in other countries to additional suspects in their jurisdictions who are allegedly connected to the online child abuse ring, but did not did say which countries, according to the Associated Press.