A Bury man played a major role in a gang which is thought to have imported close to £26m worth of cocaine into the UK.

By 2020, Nasar Ahmed and Jonathan Cassidy had established themselves in the criminal underworld.

Detectives determined that Ahmed, of Moreton Drive, Bury, arranged for the transfer of funds, and Cassidy would import the drugs.

In total, it is believed that they imported close to £26m worth of cocaine into the UK.

The cash they made was moved and transferred via various means to launder it, which subsequently funded their extravagant lifestyles.

Bury Times: Jonathan CassidyJonathan Cassidy (Image: Greater Manchester Police)

The illicit enterprise was all facilitated and concealed by the use of encrypted mobile devices, which for a time, led the gang to believe they were untouchable and their messages untraceable.

In 2020, French law enforcement accessed the data from these encrypted devices, and for the first time, police could see these once encrypted messages, giving police across the globe insight into the nefarious dealings of many high-profile individuals.

This was shared with the National Crime Agency (NCA), who then shared this data with police forces across the UK.

But criminals did not use their own names, they went by anonymous handles.

In turn, Greater Manchester Police (GMP) had to trawl through hundreds and thousands of messages and attribute them to local nominals.

In this case, they attributed "whiskywasp" to Jonathan Cassidy, "dottedjaw" to Ahmed, "nucleardog" to Jamie Cassidy, Jonathan's brother, and "octo-jungle" to Joshua Avis.

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Bury Times: Jamie CassidyJamie Cassidy (Image: Greater Manchester Police)

As the conspiracy unravelled, detectives could see that each of the individuals had their own role to play.

At the top, Jonathan Cassidy and Ahmed orchestrated the deals with their established international criminal contacts.

Beneath them, Jamie Cassidy and Avis would then sell to customers across the UK.

Bury Times: Josh AvisJosh Avis (Image: Greater Manchester Police)

Messages revealed that Jonathan Cassidy compared himself and his criminal enterprise to that of notorious Mexican former drug lord El Chapo.

While watching an episode of TV series Narcos, he sent an image to a friend joking that him and the drug lord shared the same birthday. His friend responding, "coincidence I think f***ing not".

As officers trawled through these messages, it was clear to see just how comfortable this group were, trusting these devices were completely secure.

They were not just used as "dirty" phones to conduct business on, they blurred the lines and began to use them for everyday conversations, sharing photos of their families and special occasions.

On one occasion, Jonathan Cassidy sent a photo of something as inconsequential as a box of Panadol.

However, the picture was sufficient quality that experts could obtain the fingerprint of the person holding the box. It matched Jonathan Cassidy.

In one exchange on May 18, 2020, Jonathan Cassidy referred to plain clothed officers as "quick scruffy c**** with rucksacks", the timing of this message coincided with an associate of his being arrested by plain clothed officers.

Messages and images sent between the men, paired with cell site analysis, created a detailed timeline for detectives.

Coincidentally, this all aligned with arrests and police activity, further consolidating it was these individuals behind the anonymous handles.

On July 8, 2020, shortly after the news broke that police were making arrests in connection with the recent interception of EncroChat, Jonathan Cassidy fled to Dubai. Upon his return on October 17, 2020, Cassidy was arrested at Manchester Airport.

A trial was set for February, but the defendants pleaded guilty prior to this beginning.

Today, Thursday, three of the defendants were sentenced at Manchester Crown Court.

Jonathan Cassidy, 50, of Whitewood Park, Liverpool, was sentenced for 21 years and nine months for conspiracy to import cocaine, conspiracy to supply cocaine, conspiracy to conceal, transfer and disguise criminal proceeds.

Ahmed, 51, was sentenced for 21 years and nine months for conspiracy to import cocaine, conspiracy to supply cocaine, conspiracy to conceal, transfer and disguise criminal proceeds.

Jamie Cassidy, 46, of Knowsley Lane, Knowsley, was sentenced for 13 years and three months years for conspiracy to supply cocaine, conspiracy to conceal, transfer, disguise criminal proceeds.

Avis is still wanted by GMP.

In May 2022, four associates linked to this gang were jailed for almost 40 years after a selfie of Leon Atkinson led to the downfall, confirming detectives' suspicions as to who was behind the EncroChat handles.

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Bury Times: Drugs found in a lorry as part of the police investigationDrugs found in a lorry as part of the police investigation (Image: Greater Manchester Police)

Detective Constable Marc Walby, from GMP's Serious Organised Crime Group, said: “The individuals jailed today were from the upper echelons of organised criminals that operate in Greater Manchester, and thanks to the interception of EncroChat, we were able to see their conversations and activity play out in a way we’ve never been able to before.

“Jonathan Cassidy and his colleagues got far too comfortable with their encrypted phones and began bragging about their personal lives, but this just confirmed what we already knew about them.

"Ironically, it was this bravado and these messages which have landed them in jail for a long time.

“This has been a long running and complex case, and I would like to thank the NCA and CPS for their pursuit in defending the legal challenges associated with this case. Without, these convictions may not have been possible.

“By dismantling this operation, we’ve put an end to the harm they were bringing to communities in Greater Manchester and further afield.

"The volume of drugs these men were involved in should not be underestimated, and their contribution to serious harm and violence, which is inextricably linked to the drugs trade, is undeniable.”

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Wayne Johns, the NCA’s Operation Venetic senior investigating officer, said: “The Cassidy brothers and Ahmed pleaded guilty in this case after years of tenaciously challenging the legality of the case against them.

“The NCA and Crown Prosecution Service worked with GMP to robustly defend the challenge and we now see the trio where they belong.

“Operation Venetic has been the UK’s deepest ever penetration of organised crime groups, which cause so much damage to our society.

“So far almost 1,500 offenders have been convicted and there are many more suspects in the legal and judicial systems.

“In total, more than 3,300 arrests have been made and more than 2,000 suspects charged in the UK.

“Over 10,600 years of sentences have been given to offenders.

“Drugs seizures include nearly six-and-a-half tonnes of cocaine, more than three tonnes of heroin and over twenty tonnes of cannabis.

“One-hundred-and-seventy-three firearms have been taken off UK streets, along with almost 3,500 rounds of ammunition and more than £84m has been seized from organised crime groups. Over 200 threats to life were averted.

“These figures represent the collective efforts of the NCA, UK police forces, Regional Organised Crime Units, Border Force, HM Revenue and Customs and crucially the CPS.”