The Hunt for the Kingpin Behind AlphaBay, Part 6: Endgame

The direct ripple effects of that explosion of incriminating data, passed through so many institutions’ records, aren’t easy to track. But over the following years, Grant Rabenn, who served as custodian of the files the Justice Department had assembled from Operation Bayonet, says he received requests for that information as part of dozens of cases that agencies across the United States were still pursuing.

A series of massive, high-profile dark-web busts would follow. These operations were all carried out by a new group known as JCODE, or Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement, pulling together agents from the FBI, DEA, Department of Homeland Security, US Postal Inspection Service, and half a dozen other federal agencies: in 2018, Operation Disarray; in 2019, Operation SaboTor; in 2020, Operation DisrupTor. In total, according to the FBI, those enforcement campaigns would eventually result in more than 240 arrests, 160 “knock and talks,” and the seizure of more than 1,700 pounds of drugs, along with $13.5 million in cash and cryptocurrency.

But the Hansa side of the operation was not without costs. Aside from the vast manpower and resources Operation Bayonet had required, it had demanded that a group of Dutch police become dark-web kingpins. For nearly a month, they had facilitated the sale of untold quantities of deadly narcotics to unknown buyers across the world. Even as they compromised Hansa, Hansa had compromised them too.

Did the Dutch police feel that sense of taint—taint that perhaps comes with any undercover work? Some, at least, describe feeling surprisingly unconflicted about their role. “To be honest, it was exciting, mostly,” said the team lead, Petra Haandrikman. Dutch prosecutors had, after all, already reviewed the case, weighed its ethics, and given them the green light. After that, the police involved felt they could push the operation as far as possible with a clean conscience.

The Dutch police pointed out that they did ban the especially deadly opiate fentanyl from Hansa while it was under their control, in an effort to minimize the harm they might be responsible for—a move Hansa’s users actually applauded. In truth, however, that ban had come just a few days before the end of their undercover operation. Until then, for more than three weeks, that highly dangerous opioid had continued to be offered on the site, with no guarantee that all of its orders would be intercepted.

And how did the police feel about the decision to oversee those narcotics sales rather than shut Hansa down and prevent the transactions altogether?

“They would have taken place anyway,” Gert Ras said without hesitation, “but on a different market.”

In the years since, the dark web’s observers have tried to determine to what extent Operation Bayonet actually disrupted that endless interchangeability of markets, the constant cycle of raid, rebuild, and repeat. Could the highly coordinated global takedown of AlphaBay—or anything else—end or even slow the eternal shell game law enforcement agencies had by then been playing for years, with a new market constantly ready to absorb the users of the last?

One study, at least, suggested that the AlphaBay and Hansa busts had more lasting effects than previous dark-web takedowns. The Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, which goes by the acronym TNO, found that when other markets had been seized, like the Silk Road or Silk Road 2, most of their drug vendors soon showed up on other dark-web drug sites. But the vendors who fled Hansa after Bayonet’s one-two punch didn’t reappear, or if they did, they had been forced to scrub their identities and reputations, re-creating themselves from scratch. “Compared to both the Silk Road takedowns, or even the AlphaBay takedown, the Hansa Market shutdown stands out in a positive way,” the TNO report read. “We see the first signs of game-changing police intervention.”