Chris Morris, International Policy Digest | February 16, 2021
In the morning hours of Monday, January 25th alleged ivory/rhino horn, and drug trafficker, Mansur Mohamed Surur, was led from his Nairobi jail cell to a waiting vehicle. He was told he was going for an interview. He was not.
It was not until his arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport that the stark reality of his situation dawned on him. His time in Kenya was likely coming to an end.
Sixteen hours later, after a refueling stop in Dakar, he touched down in White Plains, New York. Surur had a lot of time to reflect on his future ahead. After all, there was a high probability that he would spend the rest of his life in an American prison. He was surely second-guessing his decision last July to fly from Yemen to Mombasa to be with family on his 61st birthday. He was arrested when he arrived in Kenya.
Surur and his two co-conspirators, Moazu Kromah and Amara Cherif, have now been extradited to the United States, courtesy of the Ugandan NGO, Natural Resources Conservation Network, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Unparalleled in international wildlife crime investigations to date, the three find themselves under one New York Southern District court indictment.
Kromah, the acknowledged leader of the “Enterprise” (the name by which this West African cartel is referred to in court documents), is Liberian but resides in Kampala, Uganda. He was arrested in June of 2019 and flown to New York within 24 hours. Amara Cherif is a Guinean national and was arrested shortly after Kromah while hiding out in Senegal, wanted on an Interpol Red Notice for his part in a Tanzanian ivory seizure in 2016. He was extradited and flown to New York in April of 2020.
Little is known about Mansur Mohamed Surur and his exact role in the “Enterprise.” Details of the indictment as explained in a Department of Justice press release clearly paints the picture of a key decision-maker. A native of Mombasa, Kenya, a man adept at crossing borders without complication, it is easy to speculate that he may well have been Kromah’s conduit into Mombasa port specifically and Kenya in general.
While there are many Africans who have been arrested and prosecuted for the trafficking of endangered species, this trio is being tried in the United States for two very good reasons. They had been supplying the “lion’s share” of African ivory to Southeast Asia for the last 9 years and they conducted their ivory/rhino horn business using U.S. dollars which they deposited into their U.S. bank accounts.
The charges they are facing include conspiracy to traffic rhino horn and elephant ivory, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and conspiracy to distribute (and possess) more than 10 kilogrammes of heroin. It is further stated that the “Enterprise” trafficked at least “190 kilogrammes of rhino horn and at least approximately 10 tonnes of elephant ivory from or involving various countries in East Africa including Uganda, the DRC, Guinea, Kenya, Mozambique, Senegal, and Tanzania.”
The indictment further suggests that the principal evidence against the “Enterprise” is based on contacts, conversations, and transactions conducted with them through an undercover confidential informant. If that is indeed the case and forms the bulk of the evidence against the “Enterprise,” the facts relating to hundreds of tonnes of ivory and rhino horn they have trafficked to Far East markets may never be known publicly. This, therefore, is the story about some of that ivory.
The unraveling began in January of 2016, when Moazu Kromah’s son, Bangaly Kourouma, was arrested by undercover operatives of the Natural Resources Conservation Network. Bangaly was found with 12 kilogrammes of ivory that he was using as “show” ivory for a much larger sale. He went to court, was released on bond, and subsequently fled to his native Guinea. Nine months later in September, two close associates of Bangaly’s were arrested in Kampala, again by undercover operatives of the Natural Resources Conservation Network (using an undercover Chinese national and mandarin speaking Kenyan national) as featured in the Netflix documentary The Ivory Game. The two West Africans accused were found with 250 kilogrammes of ivory, some of which was found to have come from the Burundi government ivory stockpile.
This Burundi stockpile has been around since the late 198os and shortly before the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) ivory trade ban came into effect. In the years preceding, Burundi had been a consolidation point of ivory from many other African nations and a number of local private traders had amassed considerable amounts. This ivory was secured by the Burundi government. In 2004, the stockpile was again inventoried by CITES and found to contain 83,978 kilogrammes of ivory. It was ‘secured’ in seven containers in a government compound.
In February of 2017, Bangaly Kourouma was lured back to Uganda from Guinea by another undercover operative, this one again fronting as a major Chinese buyer from Hong Kong. With negotiations still ongoing, on February 17th, Ugandan law enforcement, and again backed by NRCN agents, raided the Kampala house from where Bangaly, his father Moazu Kromah, and brother Mohamed Kourouma were doing their ivory/rhino horn business.
The resulting search not only yielded a considerable amount of ivory (437 pieces weighing 1,303 kilogrammes) but a cornucopia of intelligence including photo evidence of other rhino horn buys, phone data evidence with international linkages, financial documents linking Kromah to Laotian, Vietnamese and Kenyan buyers, as well as packaging materials for ivory shipments, some of which matched previously seized shipments at Entebbe Airport and in South Sudan. The father and sons were all arrested and charged. That case is still before Kampala courts and at last count, Bangaly Kourouma, was still in custody for the original arrest in January of 2016.
Amongst the seized ivory was not only Burundi marked government stockpile ivory, but evidence of other ivory shipments Kromah had made that comprised Burundi ivory. In March of 2015, 780 kilogrammes of ivory had been seized by authorities at Entebbe International Airport in a “shea butter” shipment destined for Singapore. This is believed to have been one of the first seized “leakages” from Burundi.
In June of 2016, at Juba Airport in South Sudan, approximately 500 kilogrammes of ivory was seized (may have been 625 or 1,250 kilogrammes), again with Burundi ivory. Six months later, Mombasa officials seized a Cambodian-bound container with 1,097 kilogrammes of ivory that also featured ivory from the Burundi government stockpile.
Hollowed out timber
In 2016, between October and December, eight shipments of ivory totaling over 8,000 kilogrammes, were seized in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. These shipments originated from ports in Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire. All were being shipped for a Vietnamese cartel. This cartel was a customer of the “Enterprise.”
These shipments were characterized by the same unique method of obfuscation. Large teak logs or finished planks were hollowed out, packed with ivory tusk pieces, and then filled with paraffin wax or plaster-type material. Three of the eight shipments were confirmed to have also transited Kampala with Uganda consignor, Ispina Trading Company. Five of the shipments were confirmed as going to the same consignee, a Vietnamese company, Cam Transit Import Company.
Two of three Kampala shipments transited Mombasa, the last one being seized at Mombasa port on December 21st, 2016. This was one of the Burundi ivory shipments as referred to above. A Kenyan clearing agent, Ephantus Gitonga Mbare, was charged by Kenyan police for his role in this shipment and was later acquitted in a Mombasa court.
Just over one year later, this Vietnamese cartel was caught while preparing for another shipment using the same method. Cote d’Ivoire authorities with support from the NGO, EAGLE Network, seized almost 500 kilogrammes of ivory with pangolin scales that came from a Guinean supplier linked to Moazu Kromah. The shipment was headed to Vietnam and the Cam Transit Import Company. A Vietnamese national was arrested with a number of West African accomplices, including the Guinean ivory supplier.
Besides the obvious linkage through modus operandi, documentary evidence found at the scene linked this seizure to three other seizures including the 1,097 kilogramme Mombasa seizure. This was a seizure that also contained Burundi ivory.
There was one more ivory seizure that combined the hollowed-out timber with Burundi government ivory and a Kromah stamp. On January 24th, 2019, one year after the Cote d’Ivoire seizure and 2 years after the Mombasa seizure, Ugandan authorities in the Kampala area found 3 truck-borne containers holding 3,299 kilogrammes of ivory and 424 kilogrammes of pangolin scales secreted amongst hollowed out teak logs from South Sudan. This shipment was headed by road to Mombasa for a container vessel to Haiphong. A number of Vietnamese nationals were arrested, and that case is still before Kampala courts.
The second accused on the indictment, Amara Cherif, was already a marked man at the time of his 2019 arrest. On June 23rd, 2016, he narrowly escaped capture when Tanzanian authorities, as part of Interpol’s Operation Usalama III, raided a Dar-es-Salaam home. Eleven persons were arrested following the search where investigators located 666 pieces of ivory totaling 1,279 kilogrammes. Two of the accused were Ally Sharif and Fatoumata Souaro, both Guineans and brother and wife respectively to Amara Cherif. It was as a result of this seizure that Amara Cherif was placed on the Interpol Red Notice list.
The Kampala-Mombasa ivory highway
Since 2010, there have been 24 ivory seizures globally that have Mombasa as a common denominator; either as seizure location, port of origin, transit port, or transit port of destination. At least 12 of those seizures are confirmed to have originated in Kampala, primarily with Tanzanian ivory, with portions also from Mozambique, Kenya, and other elephant range states. In a 2018 report, “Combating transnational organized crime by linking multiple large ivory seizures to the same dealer” by Samuel K. Wasser, he positively linked eight of those seizures through DNA analysis of the seized ivory. The other four have been linked to the previous eight through physical evidence. Taking into account evidential linkages from Mombasa seizures that were not DNA sampled, essentially all Mombasa-related seizures are linked and the Kromah/Surur organization.
Included amongst those are the two, 2015 ivory seizures in Thailand and Singapore where almost 8 tonnes of ivory were seized and attributed to Mombasa businessman Abdulrahman Mahmoud Sheikh, his brother, father, plus 5 others who are presently before the Mombasa courts on related charges.
Coincidentally, in 2014, Mohamed Kourouma (the second son of Moazu Kromah) was arrested in Mombasa for taking delivery of two 12 kilogramme tusks. He was in the company of a man, who according to court documents, was the nephew of Mahmoud Abdulrahman Sheikh, one of the eight accused mentioned above.
On occasion, ivory from Kampala did not travel all the way to Mombasa but stopped in Nairobi to go as air freight from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. One such shipment was found in June of 2017 from a home located on the airport outskirts of Utawala. 217 kilogrammes of ivory, cut, wrapped, and packaged in cardboard boxes was seized with cutting equipment. One of the seven accused had his name on documents found in the February 2017 Kampala raid. Another one of the accused, identified as the “money guy,” was also linked to Kromah through similar intelligence.
What has been reported here is but a fraction of the ivory the “Enterprise” has shipped out of sub-Saharan Africa going back to at least 2012. While some seizures have been prosecuted, most have not. Before the Mombasa courts presently are four ongoing major prosecutions, two of them since 2013. All four have Kampala roots, three are definitively linked to the “Enterprise.” The prospect of convictions is not high.
By the very fact that Mansur Surur had kept a low profile for at least nine years while conducting ivory and rhino horn business was a testament to his ability to cross borders with impunity. A nagging question for many close observers is why would Surur, masterful at crossing borders for so long, knowing he was wanted, take a flight from Yemen to Mombasa, flying on his own passport and under his own name? Tired of the business? Family and emotion overruling logic? An act of carelessness? Or perhaps Surur believed he had “protection”; “protection” that was inexplicably lifted, leaving Surur swinging in the breeze, a pawn whose time had come to an end.
There is also a question of the status of the Burundi government ivory stockpile. The “Enterprise” had access to almost 90,000 kilogrammes of ivory since at least 2015. It is not a secret. But how much, if any, is left? CITES is certainly aware but has any action been taken against this massive ivory theft?
What is beyond question, however, is the magnitude of the amounts of ivory and rhino horn trafficked by the “Enterprise” or the importance of the subsequent arrests leading to their extraditions. This may be a sign of things to come.