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Badru Abdul Aziz Saleh – Is the arrest of ivory co-conspirator a positive sign?

Like co-conspirator, Mansur Mohamed Surur, before him, Badru Abdul Aziz Saleh now appears destined for a jail in New York.  The past Monday, May 30th, and reportedly just kilometres from the Kenya/Somalia border, Aziz Saleh was arrested.  A one million dollar bounty had been put on his head and Kenyan accomplice, Abdi Hussein Ahmed, just four days previous through a joint press conference hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and the Kenyan Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DCI).

The displayed wanted poster read that Bardu Abdul Aziz Saleh was wanted for narcotics trafficking but with the lead agency posted as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service something was clearly different. While 10 kilograms of heroin was recovered as part of this undercover investigation, make no mistake about it, this operation was about wildlife trafficking.

His Kenyan co-conspirators, Abdi Hussein Ahmed @ Abu Khadi, and Mansur Mohamed Surur were two of four accused named in a 2019 grand jury indictment registered in a New York South District court.  They had been charged with wildlife offences relating to the trafficking of rhino horn and elephant ivory, money laundering, and conspiring to distribute more than 10 kg of heroin in the United States.

The other two accused were Moazu Kromah, a Liberian who set up shop in Kampala, and a Guinean, Amara Cherif.  The four (not including Aziz Saleh); Kromah, Cherif, Surur and Ahmed were referred in the indictment as a “transnational criminal enterprise”, or “Enterprise” for short.  While based primarily in Kampala, Uganda, it was alleged that they were actively involved in all aspects of trafficking ivory and rhino horn in Kenya, Mozambique, DR Congo, Guinea, Senegal and Tanzania.  

Clockwise from upper left: Moazu Kromah (Liberia), Amara Cherif (Guinea), Surur being led away by U.S. Federal agents on landing at New York in January 2021, Mansur Surur (Kenya),

 DNA analysis of many of the related seizures, (completed independently of the investigation) presented compelling evidence that the ivory origins included many other sub-Saharan countries.  The clients were invariably Chinese or Vietnamese cartels or African brokers selling to the same cartels.

The numbers referred to in the indictment; 10 tonnes of ivory, ivory from 100 elephants (should read 1000 elephants), 190 kg of rhino horn, are minuscule fractions of what was actually shipped to the Asian destinations, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and various Vietnamese ports. 

This “Enterprise”, with strong West African connections, operated for at least eight years with virtual impunity.  They suffered some arrests over the years but convictions were minimal.  It is difficult for one to believe that their success could have been achieved without political interference or protection at a very high level, particularly in Uganda and Kenya.  

Moazu Kromah had been previously arrested in Kampala with 1.3 tonnes of ivory in February 2017 in a case that had stalled in the Uganda courts.  In Kenya, Abdulrahman Mahmoud Sheikh, allegedly linked to Kromah, had been charged in 2015 with his half-brother, father, and six others in a Mombasa court, relating to a 3.2 tonne ivory seizure made in Thailand. That case is still before the courts, and has now waited over one year to hear a new evidence application submitted by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) in May of 2021.  

“Combating Transnational Organized Crime by Linking Multiple Large Ivory Seizures to the Same Dealer” - Dr. Sam Wasser et al

And while there has been some deserved congratulations for the cooperation shown between the DCI and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in this specific arrest of Aziz Saleh, and the past July 2020 arrest and extradition of  Mansur Surur, there is also a need to reflect on missed opportunities, ongoing prosecutions and whether the “protection” on arrest provided for Kromah cartel members in the past is truly in the past.  

The original indictment  against the four was signed in New York in May of 2019.  Amara Cherif was the first to go, arrested in Senegal on June 7th, 2019.  While not named in the indictment, Badru Abdul Aziz Saleh, was arrested in the Kenyan border town of Busia on June 11th (or 14th) and taken to Nairobi. The following day, June 12th, Moazu Kromah was arrested in Kampala and ‘expelled’ to the United States within 24 hours.

Aziz Saleh was arraigned on drug charges in the small court located at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), reportedly on July 12th.  His subsequent release on a sh200,000 ($2000 USD) bond under court direction to report to the police every two weeks would be at best considered ‘irregular’. Unsurprisingly, he absconded.

Mansur Mohamed Surur was also arrested in and around the same time as Aziz Saleh. In evidence presented in Milimani court as part his extradition proceedings after his second arrest in 2020, it was indicated that Surur had also been arrested and arraigned at JKIA court in July 2019.   He was also released  on bond, reportedly while authorities awaited extradition proceedings to be commenced. 

Considering the gravity of the charges, this release was also “irregular”.  Surur wasted no time waiting around in Kenya, arriving in Yemen on August 3rd,2019, via South Sudan and Sudan.  He was arrested for the second time on July 29th, 2020, at Mombasa airport having arrived on a flight from Yemen. He was successfully extradited to the United States in January 2021.

The fourth accused, Abdi Hussein Ahmed, is still wanted.  An August 2020 story published in the Nation, “Mansur Surur and how botched cases kept ivory cartels in business” indicated that Hussein Ahmed had also been previously arrested but escaped. As of this date, Abdi Hussein Ahmed is not on the Interpol Red Notice list. 

Moazu Kromah and Amara Cherif changed their plea to guilty on March 30th, and April 27th, 2022, respectively to “conspiring to traffic in rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory, as well as substantive charges of trafficking in rhinoceros horns.”  Mansur Mohamed Surur has also changed his plea to guilty to “conspiring to traffic in rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory and conspiring to distribute heroin to a buyer located in the United States.

There are presently four known Kromah linked ivory cases before the Kenyan courts, one dating back to 2014.  The most prominent of those cases is the prosecution of Abdulrahman Mahmoud Sheikh et al in Mombasa.  This has now been before the courts for seven years.  The two identified logisticians behind that ivory shipment, the Jefwa brothers, have been wanted for the same amount of time. (Although Nicholas Jefwa is now absent from the Interpol Red Notice list.)

In 2015, Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) boss Ndegwa Muhoro, said publicly that “security agents suspected the brothers were being protected by wealthy individuals behind the killing of elephants and rhinos in many parts of Kenya.”  By extension, if the Jefwa’s were and are being protected,  (Nicholas Jefwa’s name dropped off the Interpol Red Notice list recently) would not the same apply for those being accused in the same prosecution.  Indeed, the manner of handling of that prosecution would certainly indicate interference from a higher level.  

Likewise for the prosecution of six Kenyans arrested in a Nairobi housing estate with 216 kg of ivory in June 2017.  There had been a seventh accused, Ahmed Mohamud Salah aka Ahmed Mahubub Gedi.  Salah, of Somali origin, had been arrested attempting to flee the country at the Namanga border crossing 3-4 days after the initial arrests. During interrogation, he  provided a five page statement to police investigators where he admitted  to being the money connection between one of the six accused and Far East buyers.  There were phone data links with Moazu Kromah.  He was, however, released under “irregular” circumstances on a $10,000 cash bail and never seen again. 

The 2021 extradition of Mansur Surur and now the arrest of Badru Abdul Aziz Saleh signals, on the surface, a welcome spirit of cooperation between the United States and Kenya in wildlife crime related investigations.  But it is not to be forgotten that the $1 million bounty would not have been required if  there had not been “protection” for at least two of the three co-accused three years ago.  It remains to be seen if the “protection” seen in past ivory cases, is really something of the past.

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