A ruthless criminal gang with over 30,000 members is spreading out of Nigeria into Europe – where it’s overwhelming previously well-established groups such as Italy’s Mafia.
The Black Axe is one of several outlaw “cults” based in Nigeria. The gang even has an informal “murder league” with other crime syndicates, keeping score of how many people they have killed.
A BBC Africa report quotes one online post from the group, which claims: “Score is presently 15-2, the war is Benin”. Another grim “scoreline” reads “Hit in Anambra state. Score is Aye [Black Axe] 4 and Buccaneers 2”.
“Axemen” routinely post photos of dead bodies showing clear signs of torture to Nigerian social media as a form of intimidation, as well as to brag about their exploits.
The group recruits its members – most of whom are young well-educated men – through a brutal hazing process known as “bamming”.
One Black Axe member writes how he was led away from his university campus by gang members and taken to a wooded area where he was stripped naked and whipped with bamboo canes until he bled.
As the gang members flogged him and threatened to gang-rape his girlfriend he started to think that he might not survive the ordeal.
But the beating suddenly stopped. The young man was then made to drink some of his own blood and chew a kola nut, the locally-grown caffeine-rich seed that is a staple crop in Nigeria, after which he was reborn as a Black Axe member or “Axeman”
Dr John Stone is a former Black Axe “butcher” who has lost count of how many people he killed in the cult’s service.
He told the BBC that he is haunted by the memory of his victims begging for their lives.
“It’s so painful,” he says. “The families of the dead, they will curse you. A curse will be upon your life.”
Leaving the group can be dangerous. One former member tell how they received a warning that read: “A manhunt will befall you. The AXE will pierce through your skull… I will lick your blood and chew your eyes.”
But for all its violent ways, the Black Axe gang’s main income is not from murder or its people-trafficking operation, but from spam email and internet fraud.
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Black Axe operates a huge, sophisticated network of romance scams – where victims on dating sites are duped into sending money to a stranger – and other forms of deception. One victim said he had been defrauded of over $3 million.
Scott Augenbaum, a former FBI special agent and cyber-security expert, says Black Axe’s scams can be devastating: “I’ve seen lives destroyed, companies go out of business, life savings lost,” he said. “It affects everyone.”
“Axemen” often use the words “mugu” or “maye,” Nigerian slang terms for “idiots,” to refer to their victims.
It’s a huge operation. Hacker “Uche Tobias” told BBC Africa by hacking into secret records he had found evidence that the group operated “throughout Europe and America, South America and Asia.
It is not a little club,” he added. “This is a fantastically large criminal organisation.”
The group’s tentacles extend deep into Nigeria’s political and law enforcement communities protecting its members and helping them into positions of power where they can help protect Black Axe and advance its causes.
Tony Kabaka, another former member who has survived countless assassination attempts, said: ”If you sat me down and say, ‘Can you identify Black Axe in government?’” he says. “Most politicians, almost everybody is involved.”