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Interpol busts global 'Black Axe' cyber-fraud suspects

75 collars felt, $1.2m seized in bid to cut off crime network’s financial lifeline

Interpol arrested 75 suspected members of the Black Axe West African crime syndicate, and intercepted over $1 million in various bank accounts as part of a wide-ranging multi-country operation aimed at thwarting the group's cyber-fraud efforts that fund its criminal operations.

According to the international police agency, Operation Jackal spanned 14 countries on four continents targeting Black Axe and related crime groups in the region. Law enforcement officials raided 49 properties and seized what Interpol called an "immense quantity of assets" – including 12,000 SIM cards – that spawned investigative leads that have potentially identified 70 more suspects.

The cops also seized a broad array of luxury items and residences as well as three cars, and tens of thousands of dollars in cash.

"Illicit financial funds are the lifeblood of transnational organized crime, and we have witnessed how groups like Black Axe will channel money gained from online financial scams into other crime areas, such as drug smuggling and human trafficking," Stephen Kavanagh, executive director of police services at Interpol, said in a recent statement. "These groups demand a global response."

The agency said that Black Axe and the other groups are responsible for most of the cyber-enabled financial fraud around the globe.

Black Axe took root in Nigeria in 1977 and over the decades, members have been accused of myriad crimes, including murder. The group, which has a cult-like reputation, has been a target of US law enforcement agencies.

In October 2021, the US Attorney General's Office in New Jersey charged eight members of the group – which also is known as the Neo Black Movement of Africa – in connection with internet scams following an investigation by the Secret Service and FBI. The South African members of the group were accused of running romance scams and advance-fee schemes defrauding investors between 2011 and 2021.

Many of the schemes involved stories that echo classic Nigerian email scams. They used social media, online dating websites, and VoIP phone numbers to find victims in the United States, according to the Secret Service.

During Operation Jackal, Interpol set up two operational support teams in South Africa and Ireland to manage multiple teams of officers on the ground. In addition, the Carabinieri – Italy's state police – arrested three suspected Black Axe members in Campobasso as part of Operation Jackal, Interpol said.

Interpol gave a hint to the operation in late September when it tweeted the arrests of two men in South Africa for allegedly stealing $1.8 million through online scams.

Black Axe also tried to steal about $1 million through welfare fraud in Ireland in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Interpol.

In addition, Interpol in its operation used its Anti-Money Laundering Rapid Response Protocol (ARRP), a new worldwide stop-payment tool authorities in various countries can use to track, intercept, and freeze money stolen during illegal activities. It's being used in a pilot program as part of Interpol's larger Global Financial Crime Task Force.

Rory Corcoran, director of Interpol's Financial Crime and Anti-Corruption Centre (IFCACC), said in a statement that ARRP is important in cases "where speed and international cooperation are crucial to intercepting illicit funds before they disappear into the pockets of money mules abroad."

Corcoran added that the IFCACC uses cyber and finance experts to cut off the flow of stolen money. Illicit financial flows have become a focus of international law enforcement agencies and was the topic of an Interpol-hosted roundtable with the international organization Financial Action Task Force last month in Singapore. A joint initiative taking aim at the issue was launched by both organizations.

Among the countries participating in Operation Jackal were the United States, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Nigeria, the UAE, and South Africa. ®

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