US spooks hunt Black Axe members in SA linked to online dating and 419 scams
The US Secret Service and FBI are investigating suspected members of a Nigerian criminal mafia arrested in Cape Town last year for romance scams and advance-fee schemes.
The US Secret Service, tasked with protecting that country’s political leaders and its financial infrastructure, is trying to track down a suspected member of Black Axe who allegedly worked in Cape Town as an enforcer for the Nigerian crime syndicate.
To try to gather more information on Black Axe, the FBI has an email address dedicated to victims of the scam artists.
Cape Town has been identified as a Black Axe base and eight suspected members were arrested in the city in October last year. The US wants six of them extradited.
Daily Maverick previously reported that investigations into Black Axe – also known as the Neo Black Movement of Africa and which some countries consider a cult – emerged from an earlier probe that focused on Ireland.
The focus subsequently shifted to South Africa and Cape Town, in particular.
Released from custody
Last week, one of the suspects who was arrested in 2021, Toritseju Gabriel Otubu – whose extradition the US has not formally requested – was granted R210,000 bail in the Western Cape High Court.
Initially, Otubu and his seven co-accused were denied bail in the Cape Town Magistrates’ Court. He successfully appealed this ruling in the high court.
The ruling in Otubu’s appeal said he previously had a successful agricultural business in his home country, Nigeria, but he had left there in 2012.
Acting Judge Geoffrey Carter said the Western Cape Director of Public Prosecutions had “conceded” there was no evidence that Otubu was a member of Black Axe and he “has not committed any acts of violence as purportedly regularly undertaken by the Black Axe organisation”.
“The notion that [Otubu] could in all probability commit acts of violence or tamper with evidence or because he was Nigerian by birth, all because he was a member of the Black Axe, is by its very nature drawing the inference and, in this case, the conclusion that [he] was guilty by association and therefore the interests of justice must be protected and hence the denial of bail.
“I am of the view that this approach by the [magistrates’] court … was misguided and wrong,” said the judge.
These were among the reasons Otubu was released from custody last week, with a set of strict conditions he must adhere to.
The case involving the remaining accused is expected to resume in the Cape Town Magistrates’ Court next week.
US Secret Service’s ‘wanted suspect’
Meanwhile, the US Secret Service has ratcheted up its interest in the Black Axe investigations linked to South Africa.
According to its website, the service has a mandate to “protect our nation’s highest elected leaders, visiting foreign heads of state, and national special security events; and safeguard the US financial infrastructure and payment systems”.
As part of the Black Axe investigations, the Secret Service said it was trying to locate Egbe Tony Iyamu, whose aliases included Lord Aminu Kano and Richard Amall.
Iyamu was listed as one of the Secret Service’s “most wanted fugitives”.
A summary on the website said: “Egbe Tony Iyamu is a member of the Cape Town, South Africa-based chapter of the ‘Neo Black Movement of Africa’ criminal organisation, also known as ‘Black Axe’…
“Iyamu was the Cape Town chapter’s ‘Chief Butcher’ from approximately 2013 to 2018. In this role, Iyamu functioned as the chapter’s security officer and was responsible for disciplining other members.”
Romance scams and dating websites
It was alleged that, from 2011 to 2021, Iyamu and other Black Axe members “worked together to engage in widespread internet fraud involving romance scams and advance fee schemes”.
Social media and dating websites were used.
“The conspirators’ romance scam victims believed they were in romantic relationships with the person using the aliases and, when requested, the victims sent money and items of value overseas, including to South Africa,” read the Secret Service’s case summary.
“Sometimes, when victims expressed hesitation in sending money, the conspirators used manipulative tactics to coerce the payments, including by threatening to distribute personally sensitive photographs of the victim.”
Business entities were used to try to conceal illegal funds.
In a bid to bolster its investigations into Black Axe, the US has been trying to gather further information about those who may have fallen victim to the group.
To this end, the FBI has put together a questionnaire for victims, which is accessible online.
The questionnaire reads: “The FBI and US Secret Service are seeking individuals who may have knowledge of or have fallen victim to romance scams, advance-fee schemes, and business email compromises, perpetrated by a suspected criminal group, originating from Cape Town, South Africa starting in 2013…
“Based on your responses, you may be contacted by the FBI or US Secret Service and asked to provide additional information.”
One of the questions relates to aliases that may have been used to contact victims – 29 of these names are listed.
Other questions include whether anyone is still in contact with individuals using the aliases, and whether funds or items, including laptops, phones and tablets, were given to them.
The questionnaire also looks at what has since happened to victims who were scammed – whether they have had to file for bankruptcy, become insolvent or had to postpone their retirement. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.
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