Interpol has raised concerns that remnants of the African cyber confraternity Black Axe may still be in operation. Seventy-five members of the cyber syndicate were arrested in October 2022 in Operation Jackal, an internationally coordinated Interpol sting operation.
Founded in Nigeria in 1977, Black Axe’s rise from a rudimentary confraternity confined to university dorms to the zenith of African cybercrime has been astonishing. The organisation is responsible for the “majority of the world’s cyber-enabled financial fraud, according to Interpol’s Operation Jackal conclusive statement.
Stephen Kavanaugh, Interpol’s Executive Director of Police Services, equates financial fraud and white-collar crime to the foundational blocks of establishing crime syndications. “Illicit financial funds are the lifeblood of transnational organised crime,” he said, speaking after the conclusion of Operation Jackal. “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.”
Despite Interpol succeeding in destabilising an international cybercrime syndicate, alongside the seizure of 12,000 sim cards and €1.2 million in stolen funds, Operation Jackal represents a mere drop in the ocean of organised cybercrime.
The United Nations estimates that of the $2 trillion laundered through the global financial system per annum, less than 1% is recovered.
Covid-19 accelerated global digitalisation, exacerbating the effects of cybercrime in Africa. Interpol analysts suggest that attacks against online banking platforms more than doubled during this period.
In an interview with the Guardian, the Head of Justice and Violence Prevention at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, Gareth Newham, places the blame on corrupt local officials.
“There is a combination of opportunities for money laundering and weakening law enforcement and a limited ability of the state to keep up with a big growth too in cyber activity.”
In Black Axe’s country of origin, Nigeria, cyber confraternities such as the Buccaneers, Vikings, and Eiye hold immense sway. Originally an oppositional student body in the face of British rule, Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka amongst their first proponents, confraternities quickly spiralled into a consolidatory force within Nigerian universities.
At the beginning of every academic year, confraternity alumni flood campuses looking for new members. Once chosen, students must go through brutal initiations designed to alienate them from their colleagues and further enmesh them into the criminal underworld.
Eyewitnesses reported male confraternities will often severely beat their initiates, force them to drink human blood, or even rape fellow students. Female confraternities require students to engage in fights or sexual intercourse with male alumni.
Engaging in bribery, kidnap and murder in search of better grades, Stephen Kavanagh believes confraternities' foray into cyber crime was inevitable.“These groups demand a global response”.
As cyber confraternities are heavily localised, they remain out of the grasp of Interpol. Without a nation’s permission, the organisation cannot act independently to investigate, arrest, or prosecute individuals involved in cybercrime.
As digital infrastructure is predicated on international cooperation, the infringement of software affecting all its users, Interpol is pursuing increased cooperation with countries hosting cyber confraternities.
“Fraud is transnational, there are no borders,” said Detective Superintendent Micheal Cryan of Ireland’s GNECB, a participant in Operation Jackal.
Speaking to BBC News, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Prof Landry Signé raised concerns that Interpol’s designation of cybercrime as African strengthens harmful stigma.
“In the collective imagination, people refer to these preconceived ideas… but only a small proportion of cybercrime is originating in Africa.” Potential Interpol investigations in Africa must consider such associations should they wish for future cooperation. The future of policing cybercrime in Africa may depend on it.
Edited by: Alanna Fullerton
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