With the leading support of Europol, police have arrested 184 suspected child sex offenders and identified over 200 victims of child abuse following one of the biggest investigations of its kind by law enforcement agencies across the world. With investigations still continuing, 670 suspects have been identified across the world already, 184 arrests made and 230 children safeguarded.
The number of victims safeguarded is the highest ever achieved from this type of investigation, and is set to rise even further in the coming weeks.
These spectacular operational results were the work of effective police cooperation across many countries. Instrumental to the success was the unique role played by Europol in identifying the members of the child sex abuse network and facilitating operational action by police authorities in multiple jurisdictions.
In particular it was the work of Europol analysts in cracking the security features of a key computer server at the centre of the network which uncovered the identity and activity of the suspected child sex offenders. Europol subsequently issued over 4000 intelligence reports to police authorities in over 30 countries in Europe and elsewhere, which has led to the arrests of suspects and the safeguarding of children.
These reports also identified links between this network and those featured in multiple other investigations.
“I am proud of the exceptional work of our experts in helping police authorities around the world to record these groundbreaking results. The safeguarding of so many vulnerable children is particularly rewarding and demonstrates the commitment of our agency to make Europe a safer place for its citizens. I also pay tribute to the relevant authorities in Europe and elsewhere for their operational work in tracking down the suspected criminals and their victims,” says Rob Wainwright, Director of Europol.
Known as Operation Rescue, this complex case has run for three years, with Europol supporting and coordinating investigations for the last 1.5 years. Law enforcement authorities have been brought together from 13 countries to track offenders on a truly global scale. Countries involved: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Greece, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States. Some other countries, although not listed, still have investigations ongoing in which suspects have been identified.
The suspected child sex offenders were members of an online forum – boylover.net – that promoted sexual relationships between adults and young boys. The website operated from a server based in the Netherlands and, at its height, boasted up to 70 000 members worldwide.
The website has now been taken down. It attempted to operate as a ‘discussion-only’ forum where people could share their sexual interest in young boys without committing any specific offences, thus operating ‘below the radar’ of police attention. Having made contact on the site, some members would move to more private channels, such as email, to exchange and share illegal images and films of children being abused. Computers seized from those arrested have harvested huge quantities of child abuse images and videos.
At the start of the investigation, UK and Australian covert police internet teams infiltrated the boylover.net site to quickly identify those members who were assessed as posing the highest risk to children. They also tracked the migration of offenders to other sites where further investigations and risk assessments continued.
In 2009, the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre located the owner of the website and traced the server to Holland, involving the Zaanstreek-Waterland Police in the Netherlands and also bringing Europol into the investigation.
Between June 2008 and June 2009, Canadian, Italian, New Zealand and US law enforcement authorities all joined the investigation, as the scale of the international network became clear and suspects were identified in their jurisdictions.
In January 2010, a copy of the seized site’s server was received by Europol, and the Australian and UK police. Working with Zaanstreek-Waterland Police in the Netherlands, Europol rebuilt the forum offline and forensically interrogated the server to produce intelligence analysis which was disseminated globally to law enforcement authorities. So far, Europol has distributed 4202 operational intelligence reports to 25 EU Member States and 8 other countries.
Having identified at least 670 suspected offenders, international law enforcement authorities continue to work with forces which are actively pursuing the intelligence arising from Operation Rescue. This has led to the arrest of a number of individuals suspected of serious offences against children, who are now awaiting trial.