“The ultra-violent cult that became a global mafia”


That’s how the BBC headlines an article about Nigeria’s “Black Axe” criminal fraternity, which has spread worldwide and – if the report is to be believed – rivals the Sicilian/Italian Mafia or Japan’s Yakuza as an umbrella organization for crime and violence.  The article is very long, and contains (in my opinion) more hype than substance, but it’s worth reading.  Here’s a brief excerpt.

For two years BBC Africa Eye has been investigating Black Axe, building a network of whistle-blowers, and uncovering several thousand secret documents – leaked from the gang’s private communications. The findings suggest that over the past decade, Black Axe has become one of the most far-reaching and dangerous organised crime groups in the world.

In Africa, Europe, Asia and North America, Axemen are in our midst. You may even have an email from them in your inbox.

. . .

Our search for answers led us to a man who claimed he had hacked tens of thousands of secret Black Axe documents – a huge cache of private communications, from hundreds of suspected members. The messages, which span 2009 to 2019, include communications about murder and drug smuggling. Emails detail elaborate and lucrative internet fraud. Messages plan global expansion. It was a mosaic of Black Axe criminal activity spanning four continents.

The source of the hack claims Black Axe are desperate to kill him. He would not reveal his real name, instead he used a pseudonym – Uche Tobias.

“A manhunt will befall you,” reads one death threat, sent to Tobias online. “The AXE will pierce through your skull… I will lick your blood and chew your eyes.”

The BBC spent months analysing Tobias’s documents. We were able to verify key sections of the data – confirming that individuals mentioned, and a number of the crimes committed in the documents, did take place. Much of the hacked material is too horrifying to publish. Axemen use secret forums – password-protected websites – to share photos of recent murders in internal chat groups. In one post labelled “Hit”, a man lies splayed out on the floor of a small room. There are four gashes on his head. His white T-shirt is surrounded by a pool of his own blood. The imprint of a boot, stained red, marks his back.

Within Nigeria, Black Axe is fighting a war of supremacy with rival “cults” – similar criminal gangs with names like the Eiye, the Buccaneers, the Pirates and the Maphites. Messages the BBC have translated from West African Pidgin show Axemen keeping track of how many rivals they have murdered, tallying up the figures like a football score in each region … But internet fraud, not murder, is the primary source of revenue for the gang. The documents given to the BBC include receipts, bank transfers and thousands of emails showing Black Axe members collaborating on online scams around the world. Members share “formats” – blueprints on how to conduct scams – with each other. Options include romance scams, inheritance scams, real estate scams and business email scams, in which the perpetrators create email accounts that appear to be those of the victim’s lawyers, or accountants, in order to intercept payments.

These scams are not small-scale, conducted by a lone wolf on a laptop. They are collaborative, organised and extremely lucrative operations, sometimes involving dozens of individuals working together across continents.

. . .

Black Axe’s international cybercrime network is likely to be generating billions of dollars in revenue for their members. In 2017 Canadian authorities say they busted a money laundering scheme linked to the gang worth more than $5bn. Nobody knows how many similar Black Axe schemes are out there. The leaked documents show members communicating between Nigeria, the UK, Malaysia, the Gulf States, and a dozen other countries.

. . .

According to the 2021 Organised Crime Index, based on analysis from 120 experts in Africa, Nigeria has the highest levels of organised crime on the continent – and these networks are expanding abroad.

In Italy, decades-old mafia laws are being revived to tackle the expansion of Black Axe, who are said to be overwhelming local crime networks. In April 2021, 30 suspected members were arrested in the country, charged with human trafficking, prostitution and internet fraud.

The US has taken a more aggressive approach. FBI operations against Black Axe were launched in November 2019 and September 2021, eventually charging more than 35 individuals with multi-million dollar internet fraud. Between September and December this year, the US Secret Service and Interpol launched an international operation to arrest a further nine suspected Black Axe members in South Africa.

There’s more at the link.

I have no doubt that the criminal enterprises mentioned – fraud, forgery, blackmail, cybercrime and so on – are real, and are ongoing.  However, I venture to doubt whether the “Black Axe” organization is as far-reaching and well-organized as the BBC claims.  After all, these are Nigerians.  They’re notorious in the rest of Africa for their criminal leanings, but also generally despised and regarded with contempt.  That continent isn’t afraid of Nigerians as such;  it regards them as pests, and a threat to be dealt with.  (That’s pretty much universal, in my experience.  Even decades ago, Nigerians had a very poor reputation in the rest of Africa, and if my correspondents in that continent are to be believed, nothing’s changed since my years traveling throughout the sub-Saharan region.)

There are undoubtedly individual Nigerians, and small gangs of Nigerian criminals, who are dangerous.  The same can be said of almost any nation.  However, I find it hard to believe that Nigerian gangs have spread their tentacles over the entire globe, and pose as great a threat to business, commerce and the public as the better-known cartels, families and international organized crime syndicates with which we’re familiar.  I think gangs such as MS-13, or cartels such as Jalisco, or criminal alliances such as La Cosa Nostra, would scoff at the thought of Nigerian organized crime offering any sort of competition to their own activities.  They would regard it as very third-rate in comparison to themselves and their peers.  Certainly, if one looks at the high-risk inmates in prisons across America and Europe, Nigerians represent a very small proportion of the truly dangerous criminals behind bars.

Nevertheless, the scope and scale of Nigerian crime is real, even if at a lower level and not so dangerous as the BBC portrays.  Folk tales about “Nigerian princes” or “Lagos lawyers” are endemic.  In some areas (e.g. oil theft and piracy in and around the Gulf of Guinea) it really is dangerous to its victims, and we shouldn’t take it lightly.  It’s worth reading the article in full, to get some idea of how big the problem has become.  Exaggerated or not, it’s informative.



  1. The Albanian Mafia already rivals La Cosa Nostra in Italy. They dominate much of Europe, and have established themselves here in the USA.

  2. The Nigerians are good at lower level cybercrime. There's a fascinating, but somewhat depressing, market for exploits and ransomware. They are developed by Eastern Europeans mostly and once they've got the initial targets and easy picking they sell the exploits on to Nigerians who then go find more suckers who will pay less but are still worth harvesting

  3. Hmm. My new, sorta-immediate supervisor is Nigerian. Luckily, my new employer rarely tells me anything like policy or procedures or changes to anything.

  4. Stories about criminal fraternities typically exaggerate; after all, regardless of political loyalties, the news media is ALWAYS about selling stories and therefore advertising. And film (and, earlier, stage) is no better, for the sake of melodrama. And finally, if you’re in Lawn Forcement you certainly has scant reason to downplay how dangerous the gangs are. Not that Organized Crime doesn’t exist, or is harmless. But as a rule, nobody talking about it has any incentive to be realistic.

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