The King Hunt for AlphaBay Part 3: The Alpha Male

The meeting was a routine event, mostly to prevent agencies from stepping on each other’s toes. The Americans were the first to introduce the latest developments in AlphaBay: they believed they had both the AlphaBay server and its administrator, Alexandre Cazes. They planned to charge Cazes within days, and soon after worked with Thai police to arrest him.

After a short coffee break, it was the turn of the Dutch delegation to speak. A technical adviser to the Dutch prosecutor’s office made the proposal, which was approved just minutes earlier, when he hurriedly told prosecutors about the American presentation. According to him, the Dutch police, with the help of the German federal police, were ready to arrest Hansa administrators, take control of the market and run it in secret.

Now they could see how close the Americans were to being destroyed in AlphaBay. What if, suggested the Dutch technical adviser, they merged their operations?

He explained that the Americans just had to wait for the Netherlands to take over Hansa before they started taking down AlphaBay. Then, after capturing Alpha02 and hijacking his servers, they simply delayed any official announcement of their victory. If all goes according to plan, a huge crowd of dark web users will flock from the dead market to the next best option, a market controlled by the Dutch police.

Then, only after the Dutch had the opportunity to spy on the inner workings of the dark web economy like never before – from the privileged position of newly crowned kings – did they simultaneously go public with their Hansa and AlphaBay operations. Together, their sting operation would be what a Dutch technical adviser described as a one-two punch.

Eyes widened at the American table. Ali, an FBI analyst, recalls her delight at the plan’s epic ambitions. Prosecutor Louisa Marion’s mind was filled with risk and reward. Was it even legal? Was it ethical?

Paul Hemesath, still very jetlagged, remembers being impressed and in awe of the complexity the Dutch had added to their AlphaBay operation. There have been previous investigations in which law enforcement secretly took control of a dark web site. For example, in 2014 The Australian Federal Police has been operating a website selling child sexual abuse material called the Love Zone for six months. Cases like The Love Zone have been successful but controversial. Journalists and legal scholars would specify later that in order to penetrate deeper into the underground community they were targeting, law enforcement was essentially engaging in the same crime they were investigating.

Now the Dutch have proposed doing something similar, but for the second largest online drug market in the world. There was no precedent for this.

“When it comes to pretending to be a dark web drug market,” says Hemesath, “this was the first monkey shot into space.”

Aside from the legal or ethical ramifications, he wondered if it was a little “pie in the sky,” as he put it. Coordination between agents across the US was difficult enough. Now they were going to combine the Dutch, the Germans, half a dozen US agencies and the Thais?

Still, the embarrassment of these two investigations running together was incredible. When will they get another chance to try something like this?

“Who knows it’s going to happen and that it’s going to happen?” Hemesath thought. – But let’s try.

Continued in Part 4: The team discovers a critical vulnerability in Cazes’ personal opsec and uses stealth techniques to locate AlphaBay’s main server. But just as Operation Bayonet gets underway, the investigators unexpectedly encounter their target.

This story is an excerpt from a forthcoming book Tracers in the Dark: The World Hunt for the Crime Lords of Cryptocurrency, available in 2022 November 15 from Doubleday.

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Chapter Illustrations: Reymundo Perez III

Photo credit: Getty Images

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