Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday that the FBI and several international law enforcement agencies had collaborated to shut down AlphaBay, one of the largest dark web marketplaces that sold drugs and other contraband goods.
Sessions announced the news in a press conference, during which the FBI also revealed Dutch law enforcement officials had taken over control of and shut down the Hansa marketplace, another network like AlphaBay, back on June 20.
“The dark net is no place to hide,” Sessions said on Thursday morning.
Alphabay was launched in 2014 and operated as an online marketplace for drugs, data, computer programs, stolen passwords or user accounts, and other physical or digital goods. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein referred to the site as “ten times the size of the Silk Road,” the first notorious dark web black market that was taken down in October 2013.
Alphabay went down mysteriously on July 4. The Wall Street Journal reported on July 13 that a multinational law enforcement campaign was behind the site’s takedown, a story that the Justice Department officially confirmed in Thursday’s press conference.
AlphaBay’s founder, Alexander Cazes, was arrested in Thailand, and U.S. officials successfully negotiated his extradition to the U.S. in early July. But before he could be extradited, Cazes was found dead from an apparent suicide in his cell in Thailand. The Justice Department filed a complaint on Wednesday to seize all of Cazes’s assets, which included a 2013 Lamborghini Aventador, a Porsche, a BMW motorcycle, several pieces of property in Thailand and other countries around the world, and millions of dollars in traditional currencies and online cryptocurrencies spread around different banks and digital wallets.
AlphaBay operated as a dark net marketplace accessible only through the Tor anonymous browsing service. Sessions explicitly linked AlphaBay to the opioid epidemic in the United States, though the dark web is only a small facet of the crisis.
“We are keenly aware there will be another AlphaBay,” said Robert Pattison, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, “But with every investigation we learn more and are getting better.”
The shutdown of Hansa, another dark web marketplace, was an especially significant part of the operation by U.S. and international authorities.
“The team play that we ran here was to take covert control of the Hansa market under Dutch judicial authority a month ago, which allowed us to monitor the criminal activities of users without their knowledge and then shut down AlphaBay during the same period,” said Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol, the European Unions international police agency,
Wainwright said that the users “flocked to Hansa in droves” after the AlphaBay shut down in early July, an eightfold increase in new users. But Dutch officials had already had control of the dark web site since June 20.
“So what this meant, in particular, was that we could identify and disrupt the regular criminal activity that was happening on Hansa market but then also sweep up all those new users that were displaced from AlphaBay and looking for a new trading platform for their criminal activities,” Wainwright said.
The undercover operation resulted in the police obtaining the usernames and passwords of “thousands of buyers and sellers of illicit commodities,” which are now the subject of follow-up investigations.
And despite the fact that the two darknet markets will inevitably have a successor, Wainwright emphasized that this was a pretty huge bust.
“AlphaBay and Hansa between them were two of the top three criminal marketplaces on the dark web trading in illicit commodities drugs and many others,” he said. “That’s 40,000 vendors depending on the marketplaces to sell everything from fentanyl to illegal firearms and malware for cyber crime attacks. The coordinated takedown has punched a big hole in the operating capability in drug traffickers and other serious criminals around the world.”