March 09, 2008 12:00am
HUNCHED over their computers in homes around the world, the network of pedophiles devoured the horrific images of children that flashed up on their monitors from their vast library.
Using highly sophisticated double encryption codes and stringent vetting procedures, the predators remained confident their evil activities in the cyber world were completely secure.
For four years they commissioned and traded in hardcore, sadomasochistic images of children as young as two.
Hundreds of children around the world were exploited and subjected to hideous sexual abuse to feed the twisted desires of the secret network, known as "The Group", whose members police believe knew each other only through the cyber world.
The Group had become so adept since forming in 2004 that they had attained an almost aristocratic status among fellow pedophiles.
They were so revered by their peers that other child-sex offenders attempted to emulate them and produced child porn for them.
But unbeknown to the terrible cabal, in January 2006 Task Force Argos – a dedicated team of specialist Queensland detectives who hunt internet pedophiles – had accessed The Group's inner sanctum.
Within five months, its pending demise was further cemented when a Task Force Argos detective arrived in Washington. His brief – to pose as a pedophile and infiltrate the network. "We named the investigation Achilles simply because we were looking for the weak link here in some way, shape or form," said Detective Acting Inspector Jon Rouse, who heads Task Force Argos.
Two years later, the Queensland-driven global police sting rescued more than 20 children from a life of sexual abuse and netted 22 members of The Group.
"These men were leading bizarre double lives, and being part of this network was more important than their real-life existence," Det-Insp Rouse said.
The men were arrested last month in simultaneous raids in Australia, the US, Germany, Britain and Canada. Two Australians were arrested, including a federal public servant in Townsville, who is an alleged ringleader.
More than 100 online users who bought child pornography were arrested worldwide, and four commercial sites, including one that showed more than 40 children being sexually abused, were shut down.
Task Force Argos played a key role in identifying several victims, including an English girl who was filmed being sexually abused by her supposed carer.
The girl was rescued, and subsequent investigations located another seven children who were victims of the man.
Queensland police first became aware of The Group in January 2006 when they were alerted by New Zealand's Department of Internal Affairs, which is responsible for censorship and internet safety.
The Department had become aware of a large amount of encrypted child pornography being traded over the internet and downloaded.
Task Force Argos, which is attached to the Queensland Police State Crime Operations Command, launched Operation Achilles.
It first had to infiltrate The Group, which used complex encryption soft-ware to protect its information that was immune to even the most thorough forensic examination by police experts.
"You will see nothing because they fully encrypt the drive using a variety of tools," Det-Insp Rouse said.
Once the encryption was broken – and police will not reveal how this was done – Task Force Argos found what they believed was the most sophisticated and organised online network of hardcore child sex offenders they had encountered.
The porn ring was run like a business, with the lewd images used as currency instead of cash, FBI executive assistant director J. Stephen Tidwell said last week.
"This is beyond a quantum exponential leap for us, to see folks that have gone to this much trouble to produce this kind of volume of horrific exploitation of children," he said.
To become a member of the online forum, candidates underwent a rigorous 48-hour real-time test.
They had to accurately describe certain child porn series in the most minute detail and be able to provide an extensive library of images, what Mr Tidwell called "various benchmarks and bars to get over to get into their group".
He said that "with 400,000 (images) we're going to be at this for years, trying to find the victims".
Det-Insp Rouse said one of the members, who called himself "the guardian of the gate", had used his own advanced technology "to produce multiple videos and added his own personal flair".
His video of choice was a series titled Baby-Shi, which depicted toddlers being raped while heavy metal music played in the background.
The man produced another chilling video which opened with beautiful scenes of the landmark French museum, the Louvre.
"Imagine a time when a picture is just a picture. And those who view are not vilified," he wrote.
"Follow me to the museum where dreams come true."
The video then takes the user into the museum – but instead of seeing the art classics that grace its walls, the frames contain graphic images of children being raped.
In June 2006, the task force had a major breakthrough, intercepting a video of two girls that had been financed by The Group.
By the end of that month, Task Force Argos enlisted the help of the FBI after identifying that most of the members were based in the US.
"One member posted what he wanted to happen in the next video, which is one of the clinching reasons we took such a heavy interest and active role," Det-Insp Rouse said.
Argos investigators tracked the video to a website called Young Video Models, which had pictures of more than 40 children to choose from in various poses and dress. Some had even been dressed to the specific instructions of child-sex offenders who ordered them online.
The intercepted video of the two girls, sisters aged nine and 12, was sourced to Belgium, where police arrested their father.
An Italian filmmaker, Sergio Marzola, had paid him 1000 euros ($A1650) to have sex with his daughters and pose them for the YVM website. Police discovered many parents in eastern Europe had sold Marzola their children to provide sexual services.
The investigation triggered the international Operation Koala, which last November netted nine Queensland offenders who subscribed to the YVM website.
It also led to the rescue of a four-year-old Brisbane girl who was being sexually abused by her grandfather. Further arrests are expected.
"What we are dealing with is a billion-dollar industry . . . there will always be more models for these types of websites because more parents will provide their children," Det-Insp Rouse said.
In August 2006, a detective from Task Force Argos flew to Washington, where he was based for 18 months. He had spent six months familiarising himself with The Group's practices, reading its messages and viewing thousands of pornographic images and videos.
The messages provided the detective, who cannot be identified, with an insight into the individual suspects' personalities and their age of sexual preference.
"My role as a covert officer was to infiltrate the group, collect evidence and collate intelligence with a view to identifying the members of the network," he told The Sunday Mail in an exclusive interview last week. "I was also principally tasked with extracting and then relaying any data that would help identify child victims." He became familiar with Group members, who were prolific with either posting images and videos or commenting in relation to other posts.
"As we identified members of The Group and obtained other specific intelligence, it became easier to understand what were sometimes very cryptic messages," he said.
"The more insight we gained into the individuals, the easier it became to use their words against them."
A major obstacle in the investigation was the tight security of The Group, with Argos detectives having to adapt their methods to keep up with evolving technology used by the cabal.
To cope with immersing himself in the world of a cyber pedophile, the detective underwent regular psychological assessments and maintained regular contact with his colleagues and family.
By January this year, sufficient intelligence and evidence had been collected for police around the world to move on their targets.
"We had exhausted all lines of inquiry and we determined that the arrests would be made on February 29," Det-Insp Rouse said.
Police are now sifting through evidence and information seized in the raids as part of ongoing efforts to trace The Group's activities and other possible offenders.
But Operation Achilles is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the world trade in child pornography.
In the two years since Task Force Argos began its investigation, it has arrested another 100 offenders in separate investigations in Queensland.
"It is incredible that we saved 40 children (in Operation Achilles) but there are still children we know need our help and we haven't found them," Det-Insp Rouse said.