We all know the story. A Nigerian prince, with hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank, had run into some trouble, leaving all of his money stranded in his accounts. All he needed was the help of the random stranger he was reaching out to in an unsolicited email. And once you sent him some money, somehow this would unlock his cash, which he would share with you as reward for helping him out of a bind.
It was a very crude scam, but some people still fell for the sob story and the promise of easy money. Since then, things have moved on in the world of international fraud, though the draw of easy money still works as well as ever.
Ireland is now an increasingly fertile ground for the men behind the lucrative trade, with the Black Axe gang leading the way. Having stolen or laundered €64 million in the Republic in recent years it is has quickly become one of the most successful groups in the history of Irish organised crime. Yet not one of the gang leaders’ photographs has ever appeared in the Irish news media and nobody knows their names.
However, an increasing number of the gang’s operatives and pawns are being caught by gardaí. And now the first cases in a wave of prosecutions are reaching the courts. All the detail is there; from the eye-watering sums of money to the vulnerability of the victims and the sheer stupidity and naivety of those people who are roped into the crimes.
Some of the people, known as “money mules” who allowed their bank accounts to be used to receive and disperse the proceeds of the gang’s frauds, knew none of the background of the cash. One mule was paid just €500, another was paid nothing. Some believed the word of strangers they met online that they were taking part in a business opportunity, while others agreed to hand over their accounts, out of loyalty, when a friend asked.
Garda investigations have unveiled at least five tiers in the Black Axe operation in Ireland
In another case, which concluded in the courts in Dublin in July, one of the classic rackets being run by the Black Axe gang — romance fraud — was unmasked in great detail. A fake profile, under the name Neil Turner, was set up on dating app Plenty of Fish and drew in an Irish woman in her 60s. What she believed was an online romance soon blossomed. “Turner” told her he had business dealings in oil and gas off the coast of Cork and that he was due to receive a large inheritance.
However, in time “Turner” told the women he needed money to help his business. Over six months to mid-2020 she transferred sums of money to him 10 times, totalling €254,000; it was all of her savings and €50,000 she borrowed from a friend. She even went to Dubai, at the behest of “Turner”, where a group of men tried, unsuccessfully, to trick her out of more than €600,000. Even after that experience she continued to believe everything he told her, only going to gardaí months later after growing suspicious. Detectives soon realised the “Turner” Plenty of Fish dating profile had been set up by Nigerian fraudsters based in Dublin and Meath. Gardaí believe these men were being directed by Black Axe members. The three men were arrested and eventually jailed in July for between 2.5 years and three years and three months.
Omowale Owolabi (31) of Kentswood Court in Navan pleaded guilty to theft; Raak Sami Sadu (32) of Lohunda Downs, Clonsilla, Dublin 15, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud; and Samson Ajayi (33) of Park Wood, Grangerath in Co Meath pleaded guilty to three money laundering charges.
An increasing number of crimes like these — and fake invoice frauds duping companies into paying out sums often in the millions — have been uncovered in Ireland in recent years linked to Black Axe. In 2020 gardaí carried out a search operation targeting suspects who had emailed fake invoices from Dublin to a European company and stole over €1 million. Detectives from the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB) found so much evidence of international fraud on the suspects’ phones they established a dedicated inquiry — Operation Skein — to target Black Axe. They also passed on the information to Interpol, which established Operation Jackal based on the Irish intelligence.
Just over three weeks ago, co-ordinated raids were carried out and over 70 suspects arrested under Operation Jackal involving law enforcement from 14 countries including Argentina, Australia, Côte d’Ivoire, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Nigeria, Spain, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, the UK and the United States.
Interpol teams were on the ground for the searches in two countries, Ireland and South Africa. In Ireland nine properties were searched in counties Dublin and Clare. A total of 11 people were detained under anti-gang laws and 23 arrests were made for the purposes of charging those people with 65 offences, including 62 charges of money laundering and three for organised crime offences. The locations of the arrests, in just one operation, underlined how Black Axe has established a network right across the Republic, with people detained in Dublin, Kerry, Laois, Meath, Limerick, Cork and Waterford.
The gang started in Nigeria in 1977, initially as a university-based fraternity or cult. However, it morphed into an organised crime group
Garda investigations have unveiled at least five tiers in the Black Axe operation in Ireland. The money mules are at the bottom. Above them are the mule herders, or recruiters, followed by facilitators, then operational directors and finally, at the top, the strategists.
The vast majority of the people in the network are not Black Axe members. Instead, they are people who have been recruited because they can in some way enhance Black Axe’s crime network. And almost all of those involved are only ever in contact with one or two other people in the network, and whose true identities are not known to them. This contact is often only ever by phone. That structure, and the transnational nature of all of the gang’s operations, means it is very hard for law enforcement in any one country to gain significant insight into the group’s wider operations.
To date, some 800 mules in Ireland have been identified as being linked to the Black Axe network and a total of 4,000 money mules linked to it have used Irish addresses. Gardaí have also identified 63 herders or facilitators in Ireland, 50 operational directors and 16 strategists. Garda sources said that those on the top tier of the pyramid are Black Axe members based in Ireland and the close associates they work with and that much of the money goes to the leadership of Black Axe in west Africa.
The gang started in Nigeria in 1977, initially as a university-based fraternity or cult whose logo at the time was a slave’s arms in shackles being broken by a black axe. However, it morphed into an organised crime group involved in drug dealing, murders, prostitution, people trafficking, gun running and intimidation.
Over the last decade the gang has proven adept at harnessing rapid technological advances — internet, mobile phones, social media, dating apps and online banking. Technology has allowed it to spread its cyber-enabled fraud network across the world and to reach victims anywhere on the planet.
In a nutshell, it has sent some of its members to countries like Ireland. Once in situ, those people then recruit others, who are part of a network controlled by Black Axe rather than being members of the gang.
Mules are drawn into the Black Axe network after they are approached by “recruiters” who are already involved. Those approaches generally take place on college campuses, at parties, via “work from home and earn money” adverts on social media or through friends already being used as mules. Black Axe wants one thing from the mules: access to bank accounts. These accounts are described as “the lifeblood of the organisation” by Irishman Rory Corcoran, the director of Interpol’s financial crime and anti-corruption centre.
“They’re a pretty sophisticated group, very well-organised and they have a footprint that would put any police organisation to shame. And that’s why we have to be equally organised to tackle them,” he said. “Behind these romance frauds and other frauds are some very serious criminals.”
Det Supt Michael Cryan of the GNECB said because the mules were the most traceable people in the criminal network they were at most risk of being caught. Yet, he said, those recruited as mules — often young people in school and college — did not understand the dangerous world they were entering, how easily they could be caught and the implications once they were on the Garda radar.
“You’re the one that’ll be arrested, you’d be the vital cog because it’s your bank account,” said Cryan. “You’ll end up with a conviction for money laundering, under the Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing Act. And that has serious ramifications for any young person who wishes travel or get employment. What company wants to employ anyone with a conviction like that?
“There’s also no such thing as easy money, so when you get an offer on social media, or some guy you meet at a party offers you easy money, you need to be cute enough to walk away. We all know there’s no such thing as easy money anywhere, but it certainly isn’t on offer on social media or at a party.”