In a court in the Eastern District of Virginia, a Saudi national admitted downloading child abuse content from a darkweb platform that provided illegal content to paying members. The announcement, published on the Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs’ website, highlighted the fact that the defendant had “paid cryptocurrency” to access this darkweb platform in search of illegal pictures and videos.
The case, brought to the attention of law enforcement agencies by Project Safe Childhood, is one of only a small number of cases involving child abuse platforms with a membership fee payable in cryptocurrency. These forums, chat rooms, imageboards, and and similar content distribution sites have often presented a barrier of entry for law enforcement by requiring members or users to upload new or “original” content before accessing the hidden service, website, or even group on the Kik Messenger application. Although law enforcement compliance with the rules of these platforms has been a heated topic of debate for individuals in the legal field and elsewhere, requiring users to upload illegal content has only stopped or hindered law enforcement in certain jurisdictions or countries. Sites hosting illegal content with a payment gateway pose a different threat to law enforcement and potentially more serious punishments for the individuals running the site.
U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady, at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, presided over a plea hearing wherein Ammar Atef Alahdali, 22, admitted that he had accessed hidden services that offered pictures and videos depicting the “sexual abuse of children” and, in some instances, “sadistic sexual conduct.” He first accessed these platforms in 2017, according to information revealed in court. He had downloaded more than 20 videos from a platform that required a payment of an unspecified amount via a form of cryptocurrency. The details of the payment and cryptocurrency were not disclosed during the hearing. Law enforcement, for the sake of preserving the integrity of an ongoing investigation, did not reveal any information that would allow identification of the specific site Alahdali had used. However, his case is unique enough that some identification is unavoidable.
The case, from investigation to prosecution, involved a number of federal and state agencies. The Department of Justice’s Project Safe Childhood played an essential role in both bringing information to the attention of investigative agencies and securing a conviction; two Trial Attorneys with the Criminal Division’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section assisted Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Fong of the Eastern District of Virginia in prosecuting Alahdali. Homeland Security Investigations investigated the case after Project Safe Childhood brought it to their attention. Patrick J. Lechleitner, the Special Agent in Charge of the Washington Division of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations, announced the guilty plea alongside the Eastern District of Virginia U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger and Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
For operational reasons, Homeland Security Investigations revealed very little about the investigation and the events that led Project Safe Childhood to suspect Alahdali had committed a crime. It is possible that the agency is actively conducting an investigation into the site Alahdali admitted to accessing. If they are not actively putting resources into an investigation into the same site, they likely will be launching an investigation in the near future. Even though they did not release the name of the site or other identifying pieces of information, users of the site or perhaps the site owners will likely be able to put the pieces together and attempt to lay low. It is not unusual for child abuse forums to randomly disappear and never return. In some cases, the forum or site owners move on and launch a new forum under a different name.
Alahdali pleaded guilty to one count of receipt of child pornography and will appear in court for sentencing in January 2018.