The darkest websites in the world
WARNING: Graphic content.
CHRIS Monteiro stares at his computer screen, heart in his mouth.
When the two-minute show finishes, the cybersecurity expert restarts it, looking for signs that it has been faked.
The video is substandard both in terms of plot and production values, but the content is chilling. A white sedan is engulfed in flames and the arsonist stands in front of it, his gloved hand holding a sign up to an unseen light so that the words are clearly displayed to the viewer as the car burns in the background: 'Besa Mafia dedication to Pirate London. 10 April 2016.'
Besa Mafia is a site on the dark web offering murder-for-hire services. And Pirate.London is Monteiro's personal website. The video is real and it is a warning.
On the other side of the world, I click on to the 15th email in as many hours from the administrator of the Besa Mafia website. He calls himself Yura, so that is almost certainly not his name. Earlier emails had been all business, offering bribes if only I would stop reporting on the site's nefarious activities. As the day wears on and Yura's offers are met with silence or a refusal, the emails take on an increasingly hysterical and menacing tone.
Yura promises me that his army of hackers will ruin my life. Child porn will be placed on my computer. Incriminating evidence will be planted across the internet, with all digital footprints leading back to me. This latest email has yet another new silencing tactic:
You don't know my name, you don't know who I am, but I know your name and I know where you live. I will get my gang members, and I will send them to rape, beat and destroy you. And believe me, it will be successful.
Remove your articles now. All of them.
Monteiro and I have let ourselves into the back door of the Besa Mafia website, thanks to the assistance of a friendly hacker. We have been watching every interaction between the most successful dark web murder-for-hire site in history and its customers.
We know all their dirty secrets. We have traced the Bitcoin that has been sent from around the world accompanying orders for the murder, beating or rape of spouses, business partners or scorned lovers.
In the few short months the site has been operational, the website has taken in hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now the hitman-for-hire knows that we know.
And he's not happy at all.
A hooded figure sits, defeated, in a concrete cell. Beside him are two dog bowls, one filled with water, the other empty. Propped against his feet, a piece of paper bears a handwritten message:
A web address (URL) is also scrawled on the sign, but instead of .com it ends in .onion, signifying that only somebody who has downloaded the Tor software can get access.
ISIS Red Room. Free, BRUTAL, live! A countdown clock ticks towards the deadline. The words that greet those who dare to enter the URL tell viewers what they can expect on 29 August:
"We will with official media pictures and ISIS propaganda material prove to you that we have 7 very real ISIS jihadists in our capture. Everything is live and interactive. Their fate will be in your hands."
'Red rooms' promise pay-per-view torture, culminating in murder, of an unfortunate captive. Those who want to watch pay the website owner in Bitcoins. Rates vary from site to site, but payment is always a prerequisite. A certain amount to watch passively; more if you want to interact in the chat room with other viewers as the torture is being carried out.
Then there is the director. The director is the voyeur willing to pay the most. In return they get to direct the action, choosing what happens next to the victim. Red rooms are a staple of the dark web, a natural progression from tales of the snuff movie that have been part of popular culture for decades.
But this red room is different.
For one, it is free. For another, these are no innocent victims to be tortured, sexually assaulted, mutilated and murdered. Vigilantes have captured ISIS terrorists, whom they promise to slowly torture to death, one by one.
As the timer counts down, word is spreading across forums and chans, not only on the dark web, but on clear web (regular web) sites like reddit and Twitter. A few hours before deadline, thousands of people from around the world are in the dark web chat room, waiting for the show.
At 00:01 UTC on 29 August 2015, the site updates: Let the Games Begin
The quiver in the senior constable's finger is almost imperceptible as it hovers above the mouse. On the screen, the cursor points to a link: Daisy's Destruction Pt 1. A screenshot acts as a preview, promising that the most sought-after video of the dark web may be just a click away.
Daisy's Destruction has become a dark web urban legend. It is discussed furtively in chat rooms and forums, on chans and in IRC.
A few claim to have seen the video themselves, but most have only second-hand information from a 'friend of a friend'. The details of what is in the video change depending on who is doing the telling.
The one thing they all agree on is that it can only be found on the dark web, and only within the murkiest bowels of that. To find it, you have to venture into places few even know exist; into an empire run by a man known only as 'Lux'.
Lux's empire comprises a number of sites. A chan promises censorship-free images. Another provides live streaming video. There is a wiki and a community support forum.
But it is Hurt2theCore that has the police officer's attention.
Hurt2theCore is the worst of the sites, not just within the empire, but in all of the dark web. It is the site Lux considers his greatest achievement.
Lux is reviled by most, idolised by a select few. In a place inhabited by thieves, deviants, junkies and paedophiles, he is proud of his reputation as the epitome of evil. He claims to be an American paediatrician, but she suspects he is Australian. She is closing in. That's why she has to click. It may bring her one step closer to finding him and closing down his evil empire.
The video flickers to life. A bedroom, nondescript. A masked woman. Hanging above the bed, tied with rough rope by her ankles, a child, or toddler rather, no more than two years old, screams in fear and agony.
'This is just a teaser. Let me know if you want to see the rest of it.'
The invitation is signed 'Lux'.
The senior constable doesn't want to see the rest of it, but she knows it is inevitable as she closes in on her prey. Lux's acolytes will clamber to pay him for the privilege of viewing the life of a little girl literally being destroyed and she will have to see it, too.
In the meantime, the seasoned police officer opens the little filing cabinet in her brain that secures away the vile sounds and images that have become part of her daily life. She pops Daisy's Destruction into it and locks it securely.
As always, she prays that there never comes a day when that filing cabinet bursts open.
'The last thing you f***ing want is my undivided attention.' The warning plays through my head as I wait on an uncomfortable wooden stool. There's a telephone on the bench in front of me and I pick up the receiver as he takes his seat on the other side of the thick Perspex wall, which has been reinforced with steel bars.
'I want to call you "Mongoose",' I blurt out before he can say anything. Before he wound up here, in this bleak and notoriously violent prison, we had conversed online, in private messages on a drugs appreciation forum where he often held court with his outrageous antics and tall tales. He had used the name Mongoose then and, reportedly, when armed police officers stormed his home to arrest him on a slew of charges, he had calmly commanded them to "Call me 'Mongoose'".
The author of an article recounting some of Mongoose's older crimes had elected not to interview him, because when people dealt with Mongoose bad things happened: 'business transactions fell apart, people retired nicknames and dropped from view ... [Mongoose] deposited things on people's PCs via e-mail that gave him access to their personal desktops and files. Frankly, [Mongoose] scared me, and I didn't consider him a reliable source of information anyway. So why feed his fire?'
'Please do,' Mongoose responds politely to my outburst. He looks surprisingly well for a man who has spent nearly two years on remand in Bangkok's infamous Klong Prem Central Prison. He is fighting extradition to the United States, where he faces charges of being the second mastermind behind the world's most notorious online drugs market, Silk Road. The other mastermind, his alleged protégé, has already been sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole.
Mongoose used to sign his posts with an explicit threat: The last thing you f***ing want is my undivided attention. Right now, the man whom High Times magazine dubbed the Megabyte Megalomaniac, aka Mongoose, is indeed giving me his undivided attention.
I hope I don't come to regret it.
There's the world wide web - the internet we all know that connects us via news, email, forums, shopping and social media. Then there's the dark web - the parallel internet accessed by only a select few. Usually those it connects wish to remain anonymous and for good reason.
The email is designed to never reveal its users; the news and forums are dedicated to topics of true crime, but with inside information and gruesome detail rarely found on the clear web.
Shopping is paid for with cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, on markets that advertise drugs, weapons, hacking tools and far more nefarious goods and services.
I have spent the past five years exploring every corner of the dark web, one of the few who is open about who I am and what I do there.
I have shopped on darknet markets, contributed to forums, waited in red rooms and hacked hitmen-for-hire sites.
Sometimes my dark web activities have poured out into the real world and I have attended trials, met with criminals and the law enforcement officers who tracked them down, interviewed dark web identities and visited them in prison.
This book will take you with me into the murkiest depths of the web's dark underbelly - the darkest web.
Extracted from THE DARKEST WEB by Eileen Ormsby published by Allen & Unwin. Out now. $32.99.