The evolution of the internet has long been erasing boundaries between the virtual and physical worlds. Most of its innovations have been improving our daily lives. However, many of the negative aspects of our society have also become virtualised, such as crime and tools of violence.
What is the dark web
The dark web is a section of the internet that is not indexed by search engines such as Google and not easily navigated to using a standard web browser.
Accessing the dark web requires specialised knowledge and software tools. An example of this is content only accessible by using the Tor software and anonymity network, which while protecting privacy, is often associated with illicit activities.
Generally not purposefully hidden, this part of the internet is not accessible without a known address or access details. Standard browsers can access deep websites. Typically not indexed by search engines such as Google.
On the anonymising dark web anything goes. It's a fertile ground for violent groups and individuals to find each other and share their experiences, tips, and targets.
You'll find the virtual evolution of The Anarchist Cookbook - detailed resources on the preparation of explosives and toxins; forums, chatrooms, and a number of websites belonging to extremist groups; guides to various forms of cybercrime; weapons for sale and video tutorials on how to use them; and of course, killers for hire.
Many black market weapons shops operate through the anonymising Tor network, where the location and identity of their service is masked, allowing sellers and buyers to remain hidden.
Russian gun-runners and anti-tank missile guides
One store, operated by a former member of the Russian government apparatus, sells sniper rifles, machine guns, and military-grade assault weapons. It features crude photographs of its weapons, some of which show scrapes and scratches from use. Also offering free and guaranteed shipping worldwide, this store accepts bitcoins for its very inexpensively priced killing tools.
With civil war raging in Eastern Ukraine, Russian language dark web forums have become hotbeds of information and service exchange on both sides in the conflict.
"Need prices for grenade launchers"; "Buying bulletproof vests in bulk"; "Explosives how-to manuals"; "How to blow up a car"; "Need instructions on how to blow up a bridge" – these are just a few of the underground forum topics we have seen.
The dark web provides an easy path to this type of information and discussion. In these forum threads, many readers retort in jest but some respond quite seriously with information, references, and share their experiences.
Manuals are available for virtually everything. "How to suffocate an enemy?" – here is a helpful video. "Learn how to use anti-tank missile launcher" – a full manual with hand-drawn diagrams. Even a technical manual for a cruise missile is readily available.
Buying illegal weapons anonymously with bitcoin
Most underground weapon stores look the same: products, anonymity information, shipping, and a simple registration process for the visitor. No personal information is requested - all you need are bitcoins to pay for the goods, a cryptocurrency which lends itself the the anonymous necessity of the transaction.
Many stores require escrow partial or full payments, even accepting partial payment for a part of a weapon. The rest of the weapon parts will get shipped later, upon completed payment. Vague details are always provided about the arms delivery process, but all stores assure the delivery, and quality, of their wares.
The weapons inventory varies from store to store. From handguns to assault weapons, anything and everything can be bought for the right price. A store that specifically caters to UK deliveries is selling small 9mm handguns and charging only £5 for their delivery. Another store, based in Texas, US, offers a wide variety of handguns, shotguns, and rifles.
Prices are very reasonable even compared to legally sold arms, and shipping is free from secure drop shipping locations in the US, UK, Germany, Australia, and several other countries.
In fact, assurances about the quality of the weapons and reliable delivery goes on for pages, and experts offer remedies for many possible situations including delays, seized shipments, and discounts on bulk orders.
Individual arms sales usually do not involve home delivery. Buyer and seller are often located nearby geographically, but this does not mean that they will ever meet or even talk outside of the dark web. A buyer would put his bitcoins into an escrow account, and a seller will provide GPS coordinates, usually accompanied with step-by-step picture instructions on where the weapon is hidden.
Storefronts are very popular, and like legitimate online counterparts (think Amazon) these have good or bad reputations, customer ratings and reviews. They also suffer cyberattacks from competitors and law enforcement.
With that, the individual classifieds market of weapon sales is also thriving. There, you can find anything from freelance assassins to individuals hoping to sell their weapon stash.
Killers for hire
Along with the weapon market, assassination services are also being offered on the dark web. Until recently, a Russian website was offering killers-for-hire services allowing a la carte selection from their violent menu of services.
A Tor website offering crowdfunded assassinations was also taken down as it was allowing individuals to anonymously contribute bitcoins to fund assassinations of the individuals on the site's hit list.
Individual hitmen market their services as well, along with detailed manuals on how to commit a murder, get rid of a body and/or frame somebody else.
While the dark web is hiding many ills of the society, international law enforcement has been diligently fighting the underground arms trade. Many sites, including some of those mentioned in this article have already been seized by FBI and Europol.
Alex Holden is the founder of Hold Security and one of the world's most renowned dark web consultants. Visit www.holdsecurity.com for more info on Alex and his company.