Michael Harding sat staring out of the window from his carefully selected seat in a North London coffee shop. His second cup of coffee had turned ice cold, completely untouched and bought for no other reason than to add to the facade of him being there to casually drink a coffee.
Harding had an exhausted, dishevelled appearance. His untamed grey and brown beard coated his sunken cheeks. The greasy, shoulder-length blond hair on his head was covered by a touristy ‘I heart London’ cap. His skin was a pale white, contrasted by the deep pits of black surrounding his eyes. Having not washed for a few days, if the appearance didn’t put you off him, the smell would. The only saving grace was a relatively new, well-fitted blue North Face coat complementing his dark denim supermarket jeans that edged him one step closer to ‘tired dad’ from his otherwise ‘derelict’ appearance.
For moments between darting madly about the place, his eyes would meet one of the other customers’. A group of three suits from a local law firm, two builders on their tea break, a young family of French tourists. Their conversations all mundane and for all intents and purposes, normal and uninteresting. Harding would kill for ‘normal’. He felt sick with envy of the ‘uninteresting’. In his increasingly anxious state, it almost brought him to tears imagining how much of a relief it would be if he too were just in this coffee shop to pass the time over a hot beverage, eating a muffin with a shockingly high calorie count. This had seemed like a good place for a meeting; it had seemed like it might have been a way out of his situation, but the inescapable reality of this meeting was that it was made out of complete and utter desperation and was morbidly ill-judged.
Harding was not one to make a mistake like this under normal circumstances. From a very young age, he had exhibited great intelligence and within a very short time of knowing him, it was clear to most that he was a gifted individual. As is often the case, his intelligence was accompanied by a sort of social awkwardness. A lack of understanding for other people and their feelings coupled with his unusual interests had left him somewhat alienated throughout his life. In school, he excelled in maths and the sciences and was a self-taught electrical engineer by the age of fourteen. When most other children were reading Goosebumps or playing Knock-Down Ginger, Harding was at home taking apart a household electrical item, building a new gadget or delving deep into the inner workings of the most dangerous type of device that he came into contact with during the course of his life. A Computer.
It’s a cliché, but the seconds in that coffee shop really did feel like hours. Michael’s brain raced at an intolerable speed. As quick as a thought entered his mind, the next rushed in and took over. He had been waiting just over forty-five minutes for the unidentified man he was supposed to be meeting to arrive. With the ever-increasing concern that his heart might actually explode if it continued to beat this fast, Harding began to come to the conclusion that he should perhaps reconsider this rendezvous and simply get up and leave.
This meeting was his idea, he had insisted on a public place, but the perceived ‘comfort’ of having other members of the public around was heavily outweighed by the anxiety-inducing mixture of conversation going on around him. It was a distraction and it just seemed to be getting louder and louder.
Just then the burner pay-as-you-go phone that Harding had in his left jeans pocket started to ring. It might have offered a break from the intense anticipation of his upcoming meeting had it not been for the fact that he only owned this phone for the purpose of arranging it. This could only be one person and its ringing denied Harding of the subconscious hope he had developed over the past ten minutes that his mystery guest might have been a no-show.
The connected call served as a final verification to the surveillance team on New Bridge Street. An unassuming blue Mercedes van parked down a nearby side road made the call to a black BMW X5 two roads away. The latter was filled with a team of four armed S019 Metropolitan Police officers. Having received the orders to proceed, they pulled their black balaclavas down over their heads and readied their Heckler & Koch semi-automatic rifles as the van engine shuddered into life.
Harding’s instinctive reaction to the phone ringing had been to push his chair back and stand up from the small table he’d been sitting at. The abruptness with which he did this and the sudden noise it made caused the groups of people at the two closest tables to turn and look at him, momentarily pausing their conversations mid-sentence.
He slowly slid the bashed and beaten-up silver Nokia out of his pocket, his hand shaking uncontrollably. As he lifted the phone up he reluctantly turned the screen to face him, allowing him to see the number calling.
He hesitated, standing frozen in the centre of the coffee shop in a state of limbo, the reality of what might be happening hitting like a freight train. Suddenly it’s utter panic. This was not the golden ticket he had hoped for, or the helping hand his desperation had allowed him to believe was real.
Has someone recognised me? What was I thinking coming here? What the fuck was I thinking?
Hyperventilating, Harding put his head down and marched forward at a determined pace, pushing past an elderly couple who were walking in through the coffee shop door. They let out a yelp. All conversation in the shop immediately stopped as everyone turned around to see what was happening.
Harding briefly turned to exchange a panicked and desperate look with some of the shocked customers. As he stumbled out of the coffee shop doorway and into the street, he turned back round to face a surreal scene unfold in front of him, as if in slow motion.
An eerie silence seemed to fall over that London street as the black BMW X5 came thundering towards Harding from his right-hand side at an alarming speed. Having shot through the red light at the intersection next to the shop, it skidded to a loud, dramatic, screeching halt about five metres from where he was standing.
Time appeared to move slower and slower as the adrenaline surged through Harding’s body. The BMW continued to slide in his direction as blueish smoke from the seemingly motionless tyres rose into the air. He froze there in total shock, staring wide-eyed at the driver and passenger of the car through their balaclavas. As the milliseconds passed, the car slowed down and the doors on either side of the vehicle began to fly open.
At that moment, Harding’s instincts kicked back in and without checking for traffic in either direction, he turned to his left and ran blindly into the road. Amidst all the madness he could still pick out the thud of the first officer’s boots as they landed on the ground behind him.
“Armed police! Armed police! Get on the fucking ground now!”
Harding dared not look back, his focus now entirely on an alleyway down the side of a shop on the opposite side of the street. He made it halfway across the road in seconds in a mad, primal sprint.
Officer Max Carter took a deep breath. At this point, he was out of the car with the sights of his firearm trained directly on Harding. He was walking at speed both towards Harding and away from the van, out into the road. Two cars and a bus approached from either direction and slowed dramatically as the drivers observed what was happening in front of them.
“Stop, or we will fucking shoot!”
The chorus of aggressive warnings coupled with the clicking sounds from the guns made it feel as though there was a physical wave of heat approaching Harding from behind. The crippling fear that a shot might ring out at any moment overcame him. He stumbled forward and nearly lost his balance before slowing to halt about half a metre from the pavement on the other side of the road.
“Armed police. Get on the fucking ground!”
Officer Carter approached from the rear left side of the four-strong formation of officers. He calmly raised his sights, now aiming directly into the upper centre of Harding’s back. He knew what his orders were. He knew what it would mean if he pulled the trigger. And what it would mean if he didn’t.
Harding turned to face the officers, slowly and cautiously raising his hands in the air. He was trembling with fear and all of the colour had left his skin.
“Don’t shoot please… I… I give u—”
“Don’t fucking move! Keep your hands up!”
Harding was now confronted with the menacing sight of the four officers approaching, all with their guns trained on him. All of them seemed to be edging forward slowly to make the arrest, except one.
Max Carter stood to Harding’s front right, slightly further back than the other officers. He kept his gun trained and began slowly strafing to the side to widen the angle between him and the other officers.
Harding noticed his differing movements from the other three. In a split second, he watched the officer move his thumb down and flick off the safety catch on his firearm, readying his finger on the trigger.
“For fuck’s sake! I’m unarmed… I don’t have anyth—”
Carter stared down his sights. He took one last breath and fired two shots into Michael Harding’s chest.
The gunshots echoed violently through the London streets like a hammer hitting a nail that ignited a bomb. Michael Harding’s lifeless body instantly crumpled to the ground in a heap.
One man who understood Michael Harding, perhaps better than anyone else, was his close and in fact only real friend, Timothy ‘Alpha’ Rolfe.
The pair had met at university while they were studying computer science almost ten years ago to the day. It was during this period of their lives that their passion for computing, and more specifically, hacking, moved from an inquisitive pastime to a way of life. At first it was friendly competition. Who could break into this system, take down this network, crash this corporation’s servers, gain access to this celebrity’s social media account, all under the alias of their online alter egos, ‘DOSPhreak’ for Harding and ‘Alpha166’ for Rolfe. Over the years, they had gained some notoriety across the dark web and its various hacker forums. By the age of twenty-two, with both men working dead-end jobs to keep the money coming in, they had formed their own fully-fledged hacking clan named ‘blackNet’.
Although it only really had two active, consistent members in Michael and Tim, like Anonymous and similar groups, the blackNet quickly gained a cult following in the online community. The pair’s discovery and exposure of corruption, fraud, illegal activities and on occasion, international conspiracy had spurred them to move from one exploit to the next, often ‘dumping’ the uncovered data online for the world to see.
They strictly considered themselves to be ‘white hat’ hackers — that is, they performed their exploits for the good of mankind. They had never taken down a system out of spite, written a virus to infect random people’s computers or exposed ‘celebrity nudes’ to gain attention. In their minds, the dirt that they dug up belonged in the public domain and they were doing a service to the world by putting it there. With their knowledge and abilities, they could expose information that would otherwise need an investigation from a legal body to obtain. Warrants, writs, court judgements, legal permission, they could bypass all of it in a way that legitimate organisations could not.
Their ethos was nothing new in the world of hacking; many groups had come and gone since the 1980s that had taken a similar position. Their uniqueness came in the form of the sophistication of their methods and how far it meant they could go without detection.
The group’s pièce de résistance was a combination of a unique way of connecting to the internet through ‘backpacking’ on public satellite communications and a series of machine learning algorithms that, subject to a few other variables, theoretically allowed them to break virtually any mathematically-based security system on the planet. These were one-of-a-kind techniques that the pair had developed themselves and they enabled them to operate in a manner that was essentially untraceable. Because of this, regardless of their intent, blackNet had made it on to the radar of many of the world’s intelligence agencies as one of the most dangerous internet-based groups in the world.
The blackNet side of their lives was obviously a closely kept secret and the men were confident in their ability to remain in hiding, turning up to their nine-to-five jobs every day and assuming the habits of a normal lifestyle. They were both extremely smart and rarely took anything for granted in their exploits, their carefulness evident in the fact that in ten years of operation, they hadn’t even come close to being caught or even leaving enough of a digital footprint to be traced effectively. Inevitably of course, with the level of criminality they were involving themselves in, they lost sleep some nights worrying that tomorrow might be the day they finally get caught.
Although they were conscious never to underestimate the security systems they targeted, there was one force that they did underestimate: the desperation of the people they were targeting to keep what they were exposing under wraps and the lengths that some of these people would go to, to do so.
Amongst their impressively long list of exploits, blackNet had exposed the illicit sexual affairs of senior police figures, revealed illegal offshore accounts held by politicians, brought to light the details of illegal arms deals and implicated huge media outfits in all manner of nefarious and immoral activities. Naturally, this had gained them the attention of multiple organisations and individuals across the world. Some of these parties were willing to hire private detectives, spread counter-rumours, denounce the revealed information as false. Some would contact the police or even government agencies to try to enlist their help in tracing the culprits. But there were other groups that were not interested in pursuing a legal means of shutting the group down — along the way blackNet had amassed some powerful and in some cases, dangerous enemies.
The mainstream media and elements in the government and police had stepped up their public criticism of the blackNet in recent years. It was easy to understand this targeting, after all, most people would agree that an organisation with this kind of capability could not be allowed to continue to grow unchecked and unregulated. Most people, that is, outside of the million-plus blackNet fans and supporters across the world. The group’s symbol had taken on a hard-left notoriety akin to Che Guevara. Market stalls from Camden to Las Ramblas sold out every week of T-shirts bearing their logo, a black-and-white depiction of the globe with a spherical dark net covering it. Copycat groups appeared all around the world; every teenager with even a slight interest in computer hacking idolised them. It was a love affair, however, that was to be relatively short-lived.
The claims in the media fell mostly on deaf ears initially: how much the latest exploit had cost the taxpayer in damages; the national security risk posed by the latest leak and the potential link between groups like these and other dark-web activities, such as arms sales and illegal pornographic content. People had heard the scaremongering all before and amongst their most staunch fans, this only fuelled blackNet’s popularity.
As the group’s online cult status grew and their name and abilities became known around the world, the number of concerned potential targets increased. GCHQ and the FBI had files specifically dedicated to the blackNet and although the two agencies had no evidence to suggest the group was intent on doing any serious damage, they were deeply alarmed by their lack of ability to effectively detect or control its activities.
The reality was that, although it was the clear consensus that the group was a concern, the blackNet had a very clear MO. The real potential targets were those in some kind of position of power with something to hide. As the hackers were beginning to find out, however, there are a lot of powerful people and organisations in this world with an awful lot to hide.
On the morning of October 12th, 2015, the world awoke to the news that there had been a terrorist bombing in London.
HP Stanthorpe, a long-standing financial institution with a tall building that stood in the heart of Canary Wharf, had been targeted. A package around the size of three shoeboxes had been delivered to the reception, addressed to a ‘John Doe’. Having been taken to the postage room as normal and then delivered to the relevant office manager up on the sixth floor, at 09:05 GMT on a regular Thursday morning, the package exploded without warning.
The timing meant that there were people in the hallway arriving for work, as well as staff sitting metres away from the post room. London was no stranger to the threat of terror, but the likes of this kind of attack had rarely been seen of late. Six people were killed by the blast and a further fifteen injured.
The attack, according to a claim of responsibility that was verified by police, was the action of members of the ‘blackNet internet-based activist group’.
This narrative was given some additional credibility by the fact that the organisation had been a target of blackNet in the past. The group had openly posted the results of an exploit just over a year ago, detailing examples of the bank’s policy of paying bonuses into offshore accounts and their culture of ignorance towards tax avoidance.
The resulting series of internal investigations in the organisation had led to the expulsion of two employees, found to have been members of online communities that sympathised with the blackNet. This act was itself exposed, causing its own controversy and a polarisation in public opinion. The subsequent bombing was quickly framed as a sort of retaliation for the employee dismissals a year earlier and was painted as another battle in the ‘war’ between the two parties.
The narrative, though, was a fallacy. The followers and supporters of blackNet knew this, as would anyone who knew Michael Harding or Tim Rolfe personally in any capacity. The long-building media story of an out-of-control anarchist group and their recent support from outspoken hard-left activists, however, made this version of events seem all the more plausible and real.
The HP Stanthorpe bombing was the first of two incidents that quickly moved blackNet’s image in the public psyche from a ‘playful menace’ to that of a dangerous terrorist group. A huge explosion at a large oil storage facility in Hertfordshire six months later was also pinned on the group, supposedly having tampered with the computer systems at the site as a ‘punishment intended for the evil oil corporations that store their black gold’ there. Four workmen and two local residents were killed in the blasts and resulting fires, and over a quarter of the site was irreversibly damaged.
The attacks had two major impacts. They turned public opinion further away from the group, but also meant that Internet Service Providers and more importantly, the UK police and government, were now galvanised into spending serious time and money on finding and shutting down the blackNet. It was a deviously clever acquisition of resources and one that had Harding and Rolfe shaken to their core.
Becoming aware of their invisible enemies and the tactics that they were prepared to use against them, both men were understandably deeply disturbed and paranoid. For this reason, very soon after the incidents, the pair almost completely ceased all blackNet-related activity. The one and only project that either of them had any interest in was finding out who had framed them for these atrocities. The willingness of whoever was involved to let innocent people die in order to create this scenario was a particularly worrying element that remained at the forefront of their minds.
All the while, a big part of both men wanted to just run away from it all and try to live a normal life. Alas, of course, it was too late for that. In light of the attacks and all of the other negativity being attributed to the group, several anonymous witnesses had come forward to the authorities and named Tim Rolfe and Michael Harding as the founding members. Being former friends of the two men and fellow hackers, these witnesses had a pretty convincing story to tell and soon after, the men had no choice but to live a life on the run.
The information that Harding and Rolfe had exposed themselves to over the years; the enemies that they had made and the noise they had caused in the online community meant that they would now be hunted, in all likelihood, for the rest of their lives.