Axe vs Air Lords – investigations point to international rival cybercrime ‘cults’ making their home in SA

Axe vs Air Lords – investigations point to international rival cybercrime ‘cults’ making their home in SA
Operation Jackal mobilised 14 countries across four continents in a targeted strike against Black Axe and related west-African organised crime groups. (Photo: Interpol)

Stacks of cash, a mansion and a mafia fundraising plea are among the things investigations are churning up in South Africa.

Investigations stretching across at least 14 countries have revealed how suspected members of rival cults, with roots in another part of the continent and carrying out online scams, are operating in South Africa.

Daily Maverick has previously reported how some authorities view Black Axe, also known as the Neo Black Movement of Africa, as a cult – and how it appears to have a stronghold in South Africa.

Recent investigations suggest rivals of Black Axe, a grouping known as the Supreme Eiye Confraternity, or Air Lords, are also operating in the country.

This would mean that groups with bases in West Africa, notably Nigeria, regarded as growing international criminal problems, have set up shop in South Africa.

If authorities are to be believed, members of the groups are living lavish lifestyles, funded by money made from online fraud, including romance scams.

A Western Cape High Court judgment from last month, relating to suspected Black Axe members in Cape Town trying to gain release from custody, said the group was classified as a cult in Nigeria.

The group had “a long history of using violence … which included killing, sexual attacks and corporal punishment as methods of enforcement within its ranks and in its recruitment”.

The judgment said Black Axe was possibly “the most notorious secret society to have emerged from Nigeria”.

Opposing Black Axe, it said, was dangerous.

Global security threat

A Hawks spokesperson told Daily Maverick it was understood Interpol was coordinating investigations in South Africa.

Last week Interpol warned that Black Axe “is rapidly becoming a major security threat worldwide”.

It also said Black Axe and similar groups were responsible for most of the world’s cyber financial fraud.

“Illicit financial funds are the lifeblood of transnational organised crime and we have witnessed how groups like Black Axe will channel money gained from online financial scams into other crime areas, such as drugs and human trafficking,” Interpol’s police services’ executive director Stephen Kavanagh said.  “These groups demand a global response.”

Late in 2021, South Africa’s Hawks announced eight suspected Black Axe online scammers had been arrested in Cape Town during a joint operation with the US’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The arrests also had links to Italy and to Ireland, where investigations in 2020 gave rise to those in South Africa.

Operation Jackal

Interpol’s statement issued last week said the latest phase of an ongoing crackdown, codenamed Operation Jackal, had “mobilised 14 countries across four continents in a targeted strike against Black Axe and related West-African organised crime groups”.

In the last week of September, police officers in various countries began Operation Jackal clampdowns.

A total of 75 arrests were carried out, 49 properties were searched and €1.2-million (about R21-million) was intercepted in bank accounts. About 12,000 SIM cards were confiscated and roughly 70 more suspects were identified.

“Two Interpol operational support teams were also deployed to South Africa and Ireland respectively to help coordinate international law enforcement teams on the ground,” Interpol’s statement said.

“In South Africa alone … two suspects arrested were wanted for online scams that extracted US$1.8-million [nearly R32.5-million] from victims.”

According to Hawks spokesperson Colonel Katlego Mogale, a police team from South Africa, along with Interpol officers, arrested the two suspects at separate locations in Tshwane in the last week of September. Laptops, phones and thousands of rands in cash were seized. So was an unlicenced firearm.

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Air Lords are in SA

Mogale said the two suspects “are alleged to be part of a cult known as the Air Lord’s who are said to be rivals of the Black Axe movement.”

It was suspected the individuals were involved in online scams.

The arrests, Mogale said, were among many in various countries that were part of operations to trace “suspects involved in online scams such as romance, investments, Bitcoin, employment and all related advance fee fraud”.

A video clip of Ian Pemberton, an acting coordinator in Interpol’s Financial Crime and Anti-Corruption Centre, posted on Twitter on 30 September, showed him outside a home in Tshwane.

The property, in another Tweet on Interpol’s official account, was described as a “luxury mansion”.

Pemberton said he was at “one of the search sites”, where a suspect inside had “literally just been arrested”. He said evidence obtained at the property would assist global investigations.

A plea for cash in Cape Town

As part of Operation Jackal, three Black Axe suspects were arrested in Campobasso, Italy.

Western Cape High Court papers – the judgment relating to Black Axe suspects in Cape Town trying to get bail – showed they had alleged ties to Italy.

The judgment said, “Black Axe was recognised as a mafia group with a presence in Palermo, Italy.”

About 18 suspected Black Axe members have previously been arrested in Italy on charges that include money laundering and drug trafficking. Their arrests were flagged in Cape Town.

The judgment said that, in a speech delivered during a Black Axe seminar in Cape Town on 9 November 2018, the head of Black Axe “called for members to provide money to the organisation to assist the Italian Zone members with their legal bills to fight the charges against them”.

Money mules in Ireland

Last Friday, authorities in Ireland announced that country’s leg of Operation Jackal, codenamed Operation Skein, had resulted in 23 arrests in the last week of September. Operation Skein started in late 2020.

Irish police said in a statement that, to date, it was believed about €64-million – nearly R1.1-billion – had been laundered through Ireland.

“The bank accounts used to launder this €64-odd-million money belongs to Irish residents who are recruited as money mules by what are known as mule herders,” it said.

“Money mules are recruited via social media or through friends or at parties. On some occasions, young people with drug debts pay off their drug debts by allowing their accounts to be used.”

In November last year, Interpol said its members helped police in Ireland download data and records from phones and computers seized during Operation Skein crackdowns. 

Victims all over the world

Some of the data collected in Ireland led to investigations in South Africa and the US.

Meanwhile, Daily Maverick previously reported that, of the eight suspected Black Axe members arrested in Cape Town about a year ago, the US wanted six of them extradited.

It was also reported that the US Secret Service, tasked with protecting that country’s political leaders and its financial infrastructure, was trying to track down Egbe Tony Iyamu, whose aliases included Lord Aminu Kano and Richard Amall.

He was a suspected member of Black Axe who allegedly worked in Cape Town as an enforcer for the crime syndicate.

The Cape Town court judgment from September said, among the alleged targets of the suspects, had been a US university that lost money in a business email compromise scheme.

It also said the US identified further “victims in Germany, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, Turks and Cairos, the UK and Canada, all associated with the Black Axe in Cape Town.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Really good news. Tx Caryn and DM for this timely report on the results of the ongoing war against organised crime.

  • virginia crawford says:

    South Africa, the natural habitat for criminals: toothless policing, cash can buy anything including passports and documents, and more.

  • Sam Shu says:

    Irony that the same day this is published CR outlines steps to combat state capture corruption. So we have the cult mafia, the drug smuggling mafia (recent article about smuggling drugs in fruit to and from India), the construction mafia, the state capture mafia. Hmmm… maybe we need to tax them 😉

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