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Investigative journalists track suspected cartel boss using his google reviews

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Kinahan cartel is allegedly one of the biggest crime organizations in the world. And the group's kingpins, Christopher Kinahan and his sons, Daniel and Christopher Jr., are wanted by law enforcement agencies inside and outside of their native Ireland. The U.S. has offered $5 million bounties for information leading to their arrest. Now, you might assume that a globally wanted man would want to keep a low profile, but the investigative news organization Bellingcat managed to track Christopher Kinahan Sr.'s whereabouts by examining years of reviews he has left on Google. Connor Plunkett is a freelance open source researcher. He worked with Bellingcat on their report. Hi there.

CONNOR PLUNKETT: Hi - nice to meet you.

KELLY: Start by giving us just the tiniest bit of background on this cartel. The Kinahans are not household names here in the U.S.

PLUNKETT: Yeah, so the Kinahan family - they're a Irish crime family. They started out in Dublin. They're involved in international money laundering and drug trafficking. Irish police have said they've amassed wealth of over a billion euros. So they're heavy players.

KELLY: OK, so let's cut to the chase of what I want to talk to you about, which is that it turns out Christopher Sr. has apparently maintained an online presence using an alias but including an extensive history of posting reviews on Google. How did this come to light? How did you know to start looking into this?

PLUNKETT: There were some media reports that Christopher Kinahan Sr. had been using an alias on some social media platforms. This sprang the idea that maybe he'd been using them in other places online, too. So just by doing a relatively simple Google search using his alias Christopher Vincent, there was one result for a Google review for a restaurant in Dubai. And clicking on this review opened the review page that showed all his reviews going back for a couple of years. And as it turned out, they did belong to Christopher Kinahan.

KELLY: What sort of stuff is he reviewing?

PLUNKETT: It's mostly restaurants, hotels, also airports. It just kind of shows that he is into fine dining. He likes five-star hotels. He likes traveling a lot. He is in VIP lounges and airports. He just kind of portrays himself as kind of a discerning customer.

KELLY: Yeah. I'm going through some of the details that you include in your report. He's talking about whether a menu caters for vegan eaters or not. Here's one quote. "I had the acai bowl, followed by eggs with almond bread and green salad" - just to give people a little bit of the flavor of what these reviews are. How are you sure that it's him?

PLUNKETT: So a lot of his reviews - he also posted photographs. And in some of these photos, he inadvertently captured his reflection. And we were able to compare pictures that are out there of Christopher Sr. with these photos. And we could see that they matched.

KELLY: Why would someone who's allegedly a drug kingpin running all kinds of things in arms trafficking, money laundering, narcotics - why would such a person leave a trail of breadcrumbs online?

PLUNKETT: Yeah, it's a good question. It's something that I wondered myself. My opinion is this. He does it for the same reason that anyone does it. I mean, he wants to get his opinion out there. He's sitting in an airport lounge or something with time to kill, and he just fires off a few reviews. And he thinks, nobody's going to know this is me, so what's the big deal? But as it turned out, he wasn't as under the radar as he thought.

KELLY: Yeah. When's the most recent review dated?

PLUNKETT: The most recent review is from March 2023. It's for a five-star hotel on the eastern coast of the UAE. He posted most of his reviews before the American sanctions in 2022. And after those, there are five or six reviews and they're all for inside the UAE.

KELLY: Fascinating. Have you given any thought to whether you should be submitting a claim for the bounty money?

PLUNKETT: I think it's too late now. I think everyone can have a bit of a claim at this point.

KELLY: That is open source researcher Connor Plunkett. His report in Bellingcat is titled "Kinahan Cartel: Wanted Narco Boss Exposes Whereabouts By Posting Google Reviews." Connor Plunkett, thank you.

PLUNKETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Kathryn Fox
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.