Canadian police say they are fighting a new kind of criminal organization.
The signs began to appear two years ago: photos on Facebook of men wearing odd, matching outfits.
Then there were stories, even old police files, attached to the people in the photos: a kidnapping, a man run over by a car, brutal beatings over what seemed to be a small slight.
Mapping a secret criminal hierarchy for the first time is a rare kind of detective work. So when two Toronto police officers and an RCMP analyst in British Columbia started documenting the existence of something called the "Black Axe, Canada Zone," they could not have predicted it would take them to funerals, suburban barbecue joints and deep into African history before they understood what they were seeing.
The Black Axe is feared in Nigeria, where it originated. It is a "death cult," one expert said. Once an idealistic university fraternity, the group has been linked to decades of murders and rapes, and its members are said to swear a blood oath.
Most often, the group is likened to the Mob or to biker gangs, especially as it spreads outside Nigeria.
An investigation by The Globe and Mail that included interviews with about 20 people found that "Axemen," as they call themselves, are setting up chapters around the world, including in Canada.
Like any criminal organization, it focuses on profit, police say. But instead of drug or sex trafficking, it specializes in a crime many consider minor and non-violent: scamming.
What police have also learned is that, when done on an "industrial" level as part of a professional global network, scams ruin lives on a scale they have rarely seen.
Two weeks ago, at a news conference attended by FBI officers, Toronto police announced they had taken part in an international crackdown on a money-laundering network through which more than $5-billion flowed in just over a year. Two local men charged with defrauding a Toronto widow of her life's savings will eventually face extradition to the United States on money-laundering charges, they said.
Online fraud is fluid, global and hard-to-track, but it often requires local operatives. Several Toronto-area residents have been defrauded of at least $1-million each in the past two years, and police allege the money was wired with the help of Canadian residents linked to the Black Axe, and sometimes it was handed to the group's associates in person. The recipients then sent the money ricocheting through bank accounts around the globe, with trusted members in countries on every continent helping with the transfers before it disappeared.
The sophistication of the money-laundering scheme reflects the efficiency of the scams, in which several people assume false identities and mix reality – bank accounts, real names and real websites – with fake documents.
The police added an extra charge for one of the men they arrested, Akohomen Ighedoise, 41: "participating in a criminal organization."
Officers said in an interview they seized documents that will prove in court that Mr. Ighedoise separately helped a network of fraudsters launder money, that the fraudsters are members of the Black Axe and that he is their bookkeeper. The charge is the first time a Canadian has been publicly linked to the group.
Interviews with police, gang experts and Nigerian academics paint a picture of an organization both public and enigmatic, with an ostensible charitable purpose as well as secret codes and a strict hierarchy. Police say it has grown to 200 people across Canada.
Officers in Canada first heard the name "Black Axe" less than two years ago, said Tim Trotter, a detective constable with the Toronto Police Service. They are working quickly, trying to stop the group from becoming entrenched.
"I mean, 100 years ago, law enforcement dealt with the same thing, the Sicilian black hand, right? It meant nothing to anybody except the Sicilian community," Det. Constable Trotter said. "And that's what we have here – that's what we believe we have here."
Many scam victims lose a few thousand dollars. Soraya Emami, one of Toronto's most recent victims, lost everything, including many friends.
In 1988, Ms. Emami fled her native Iran with her four sons. Her husband was jailed by the regime and his passport was held for years. Ms. Emami flew to Canada and became a real estate agent in North York.
It took 30 years to save for a nice house in quiet Stouffville, Ont. The rest of her earnings went to her boys, who grew up to be a doctor, an engineer, a computer engineer and a bank manager. Last year, the youngest – a fifth son, born in Canada – began university. She and her husband had never reunited, and for the first time in decades, Ms. Emami thought about dating.
"My kids grow up, and I feel lonely," said the 63-year-old, who has long, wavy black hair. "I didn't know how, and because I'm not [used to] any relationship, I feel shy."
Ms. Emami saw a TV commercial for Match.com and joined, hesitantly. A few days later, she told a friend she had heard from a tanned, white-haired, very nice geologist. Fredrick Franklin said he lived just 45 minutes away, in Toronto's wealthy Bridle Path neighbourhood.
He had spent years in Australia, and when they talked on the phone, she could not always understand his thick accent at first. He called her several times a day from Vancouver, where he was on a business trip, then from Turkey, where he travelled on a short contract. He was to fly home via Delta airlines on May 5. She would pick him up from the airport, and they would finally meet.
"I am a simple man in nature, very easy going," he wrote in an e-mail, telling her about his son and granddaughters. "I have done the Heart and Stroke ride in Toronto for the past 2 years, have also done the MS ride from London to Grand Bend."
A few days before his return date, Mr. Franklin called Ms. Emami in a panic. His bank had told him someone had tried to gain access to his account, he said. He could not clear it up from rural Turkey, so would she mind calling the bank and reporting back with his balance? He e-mailed the phone number for SunTrust bank, a 10-digit account number and a nine-digit tax ID number.
She spoke to a bank teller. The balance, she was told, was $18-million.
A few days later, Mr. Franklin asked for a small favour – could she send him a new phone and laptop – saying he would repay her upon his return. She acquiesced, believing he could pay her back.
Within a few weeks, she lost half a million dollars, and the scam would cost her the home in Stouffville.
What perplexes police about some of the Toronto romance frauds is not how the victims could be so naive, but how the fraudsters could be so convincing.
The SunTrust account appears to be real, The Globe determined after retracing the steps Ms. Emami took to access it. The bank said it could not verify the account's existence, as that was client-related information.
In the course of the scam, Ms. Emami spoke to at least five people other than the Aussie geologist, including two in person.
In June, in what they called Project Unromantic, York Regional Police charged nine local people in several cases, including that of Ms. Emami, that added up to $1.5-million. They considered the criminals to be internationally connected. "We don't know who's at the top, but there seems to be a hierarchy," Detective Courtney Chang said.
The Toronto police believe the crimes that led to their charges against Mr. Ighedoise are linked to the ones in York Region.
Canadian police came across the Black Axe by happenstance. In 2013, an RCMP analyst in Vancouver was investigating a West Coast fraud suspect and found a photo of him on Facebook with another man, said Det. Constable Trotter (the analyst would not speak to The Globe). Both were wearing unusual clothes and seemed to be at a meeting in Toronto.
The analyst discovered the second man was under investigation by Toronto financial crimes detective Mike Kelly, an old partner of Det. Constable Trotter. The analyst e-mailed Det. Constable Kelly to ask if he knew the significance of what the two men in the photo were wearing.
The uniform of the Black Axe is a black beret, a yellow soccer scarf and high yellow socks. These items often have a patch or insignia showing two manacled hands with an axe separating the chain between them, which sometimes also says "Black Axe" or "NBM," standing for "Neo-Black Movement," another name for the group. They often incorporate the numbers seven or 147.
The group tries to maintain a public image of volunteerism. It has been registered as a corporation in Ontario since 2012 under the name "Neo-Black Movement of Africa North America," with Mr. Ighedoise among several people listed as administrators. In the United Kingdom, said Det. Constable Trotter, it has been known to make small donations – to a local hospital, for example – and then claim to be in a "partnership" with the legitimate organization.
In the GTA, the group got itself listed publicly in 2013 as a member of Volunteer MBC, a volunteer centre serving Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon. But after expressing an interest in recruiting volunteers, the group involved never posted an ad, and staff at the centre said when they tried to follow up, they found the three yahoo.com addresses on file were no longer working.
Police found plenty of photos on social media of men in Axemen uniforms at what were said to be conferences or events.
Det. Constable Kelly and Det. Constable Trotter compiled a list of people in Canada photographed wearing Axemen outfits. From a car, they watched some of them attend a funeral. One mourner had yellow socks and a yellow cummerbund with NBM on it, Det. Constable Trotter said. The rest were dressed normally. Near the end of the ceremony, "all of a sudden the berets and everything came out, and then they put the coffin into the earth," he said.
As they added names to their list, the investigators checked each one for connections to previous cases.
What they found were 10 to 20 episodes of serious violence over the past few years clearly linked to members of the group, many of them at a Nigerian restaurant in northwest Toronto, Det. Constable Trotter said. One man had been run over by a car; another was allegedly kidnapped and beaten with a liquor bottle for a day in an abandoned building; a man was knocked to the ground for refusing to fetch another man a beer. Witnesses generally refused to talk.
In one incident, a group of men had insulted another man's girlfriend, and when he objected, they "beat the living hell" out of him, leaving him with cranial fractures, Det. Constable Trotter said.
"Without the understanding of the context, it's just a bar fight," he said. "But when we understand who those people were, and we realize, oh, they're all affiliated to the group … that's why no one called . And that's why, when the police came, suddenly, oh no, those cameras don't work. And that's why, out of a bar full of people, the only witness was his girlfriend."
That case and the kidnapping case are before the courts, Det. Constable Trotter said. The Globe tried to search for all court records linked to the bar's address over the past few years, but was told such a search is impossible.
Police have six criteria to identify members of the group, Det. Constable Trotter said. If a person meets three of the six, he is considered a likely member.
Police have documents that show when certain people were "blended" or initiated into the group, including some in Toronto, he said. Members live mostly in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.
"There's evidence that they've been active since 2005, so that's a decade's worth of ability to lay under the radar and become ensconced in the criminal community," he said.
To set up scams, they work from cafés or home and are "fastidious" about deleting their online history, Det. Constable Kelly said.
"They have names, titles, they show respect," Det. Constable Trotter said. "They pay dues to each other. Individuals are detailed by higher-ranking individuals to do things."
As they learned of the group's fearsome reputation in Nigeria, the officers began to equate it more with established Canadian organized crime. At Afrofest in Woodbine Park one summer, a group of Axemen walked through in full uniform – not something anyone from the Nigerian community would do lightly, Det. Constable Trotter said. "I wouldn't wear a Hells Angels vest if I wasn't a Hells Angel."
He began to worry the group's brazenness would signify to the community that "Axemen are here. And they're open about it, and the police are doing nothing."
Fraternities such as the Black Axe were born during an optimistic time in Nigeria's recent history, and at first they reflected it. In the postcolonial 1970s, they were modelled after U.S. fraternities. They attracted top students and were meant to foster pan-African unity and Nigeria's future leaders.
When the country descended into widespread corruption after its oil boom, the fraternities split into factions and violently sought power on campuses, trying to control grades and student politics and gain the loyalty of the richest, best-connected students.
Through the 1990s and 2000s, the groups inspired terror: Students were hacked to death or shot in their sleep, and professors were murdered in their offices in what seemed to be random attacks. Researchers say such crimes were often assigned to new members in their late teens to prove their allegiance after a painful hazing in an isolated cemetery or forest.
"Sometimes, they are given some tough assignments like raping a very popular female student or a female member of the university staff," Adewale Rotimi wrote in a 2005 scholarly article.
Raping the daughters of rich and powerful families, or the girlfriends of enemies, was another tactic of the groups to prove their dominance, Ifeanyi Ezeonu wrote in 2013.
In addition to innocent victims, one West African organization fighting cult violence says more than 1,700 fraternity members died in inter-group wars in a 10-year span. The groups were outlawed, and much of their ritualistic element – night-time ceremonies, code words – seemed to evolve to avoid detection, said Ogaga Ifowodo, who was a student in Nigeria during the 1980s and later taught at Cornell and Texas State universities.
"Early on … you could distinguish them by their costume," he said. "The Black Axe, they tended to wear black berets, black shirt and jeans."
The transformation was not a coincidence, Mr. Ifowodo said.
"At that time, we were under military dictatorships, and they had actually propped up the now-secret cults as a way of weakening the students' movements," he said. "It violates something that I think is sacred to an academic community, which is bringing into campus a kind of Mafia ethos."
But this does not explain whether, or how, the fraternities could morph into a sophisticated global crime syndicate.
In Nigeria, the groups are not associated with fraud, said Etannibi Alemika, who teaches at Nigeria's University of Jos. Mr. Ifowodo agreed. However, he also backed Toronto Police's conclusion that Black Axe is one and the same as the Neo-Black Movement. In a briefing document posted online, Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board says the two are closely linked, but speculates that the Black Axe is a "splinter group" of the NBM.
The NBM is known to carry out fraud, said Jonathan Matusitz, a professor at the University of Central Florida who has studied Nigerian fraternities. He said the group's members have also been linked, mostly in Nigeria, to drug trafficking, pimping, extortion, and the falsification or copying of passports and credit cards.
"I think that the NBM movement is more about scamming people, and it has some associations with the Black Axe, which kills people," he said. "Have they joined forces to have like a super-group? I hope not."
Despite police fears, several people interviewed by The Globe, mostly business owners, said they had never heard of the Black Axe before the police news conference last week.
Kingsley Jesuorobo, a Toronto lawyer who has many Nigerian-Canadian clients, said he has never heard of anyone being intimidated by the group.
Mr. Jesuorobo said he is familiar with the Black Axe in the Nigerian context, but cannot imagine it posing a real threat in Canada. It is more likely that former members gravitate to each other for social reasons, he said.
"It would be a case of comparing apples and oranges to look at how these guys operate – the impunity that characterizes their actions – in Nigeria, and then sort of come to the conclusion that they can do the same thing here," he said.
For Nigerian-Canadians, a cultural minority working hard to establish themselves, the idea is very troubling, he said.
"If these things are true, it would be a bad omen for our community," he said.
After confirming her love interest's $18-million bank balance, Ms. Emami did not hear from him for a few days. When they spoke again, she told him she had worried. He responded that it was a sign of how close they had become; she had sensed something had happened.
The geologist said that during his contract in Turkey, he had been in a mining accident. He was injured and could not get to Istanbul to replace his phone and laptop, which had been destroyed, so would she buy new ones and send them by courier? Ms. Emami went to the Apple Store at Fairview Mall and called him, asking if he could pay with his credit card over the phone. He said the store would not allow it, and the employee agreed. So she bought the $4,000 laptop and phone and shipped them.
A few days later, he called again: He needed $80,000 to pay the salary of an employee, promising to repay with interest. She told him she would have to borrow from her son, but he reassured her, and she wired the money in several instalments.
The day of his flight, a man called and said he was Mr. Franklin's lawyer and was with him at the Istanbul airport. Someone injured in the mining accident had died, he said, and Mr. Franklin owed $130,000 to his family or he would go to jail.
"He's calling me, he's crying to me," she said. "I didn't have any choice. I go to friends and everybody I know. Because you know, when you're trying to be a good person, everybody trusts you. …Whatever I asked, they give me."
Even a friend of a friend, a cab driver, lent her thousands. "He told me, you know, dollar by dollar I collected this money," she recalled.
Mr. Franklin sent her details of his rebooked flight, and she promised to pick him up and cook a meal. He would love that, he said; he liked chicken.
"You don't believe how much food I make for him," she said.
She was waiting with the packed-up meal the morning of his flight when the phone rang again. It was another lawyer, this time at the Frankfurt airport, he said. Mr. Franklin owed $250,000 in tax before he could leave the country with a valuable stone.
"My heart is just – crash," she said. "I was crying on the phone. I said, 'Please don't do this to me. … Why are you doing this to me? I told you from the first day, I'm borrowing this money from people.'"
A man saying he was Mr. Franklin's son, who also had an Australian accent, called and told her he had remortgaged his house to save his father and might lose custody of his children because of it. Ms. Emami pulled together $158,000. When her bank would not let her transfer the money, she was instructed to meet a man and a woman in person who deposited it into their accounts.
Ms. Emami's son and her manager at work persuaded her to go to police. When officers told her Mr. Franklin was not real and the money was likely gone for good, they called a psychiatrist to help her grasp the news.
She cannot pay her bills or afford groceries, her credit rating is destroyed and she is hunting for work despite crippling headaches. On Oct. 27, she was served with notice that she will lose her house in Stouffville in 20 days.
"I can't sleep," she said recently, crying.
She had always considered it her "duty" to help people in need, she said. Now her friends, even her sons, are angry that the scam impoverished them as well.
"It's my life, it's my relationships," she said. "And after 30 years living here with five kids, you know, I can't live in the street. I can't go to the shelter."
Other local women describe the lengths fraudsters went to to blend truth and fiction. One received a forged Ontario provincial contract. Two victims in York said the scammers impersonated an Edmonton mining executive. The fraudsters build Facebook and LinkedIn accounts that seem to be populated by friends and family.
"When we Google them, they do seem real," one woman said.
Daniel Williams of the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, a federal intelligence-gathering agency on fraud, said the scammers profit from economies of scale. "What they did to you, they were doing to 8,000 people that day," he said.
The agency gets more calls from fraud victims a day than it can answer, sometimes exceeding 2,000. Staff look for waves of calls complaining of the same methods.
Authorities estimate they are only ever aware of about 1 per cent to 5 per cent of fraud committed globally, Mr. Williams said. Many victims do not believe they have been scammed or will not report it out of embarrassment.
Fraudsters, sometimes using credit checks, also home in on well-off victims for special treatment, Det. Constable Kelly said.
"It's just like, oh, we've got somebody on $100,000 level, let's steer this to this person," he said.
The amount taken from Toronto victims alone is "absolutely astonishing," he said.
"If you were going to distribute cocaine, for example, you have to buy that cocaine from another smuggler somewhere, and you have to put up money for that," he said.
"In fraud, what is your put-up? What is your overhead? Your commodity that you're trading in, that you're selling, is BS. BS is cheap, it's abundant, it's infinite. You know, it can be replicated again and again and again and again. … And that's why it's a better business."
Fraudsters based in Canada work with people in Kuala Lumpur, in Tokyo, in Lagos, Det. Constable Kelly said.
At the turn of the 20th century in New York, Italian-owned banks started suffering bombings, and homes were mysteriously burned down. Police heard the incidents happened after warnings from something called the "black hand." But no officers spoke Italian, and investigations were stymied.
It was not until the 1950s that widespread police crackdowns began. By that time, the group now known as the Mafia had spread around the world and made new alliances. The FBI estimates the organization has about 25,000 members and a quarter-million affiliates worldwide, including about 3,000 in the United States.
Police hope the charge against Mr. Ighedoise will send an early message to Canada's Axemen. York and Toronto officers are working to confirm connections between the fraud ring that impoverished Ms. Emami and the ring that Mr. Ighedoise is alleged to help lead.
At their recent press conference, they appealed to the Nigerian community to report instances where the Black Axe has "intimidated" others.
They want to know how ambitious the group really is, Det. Constable Trotter said, and how much it is feared.
If Axemen rely on selling stories, he said, the most important one is for their own community: "That [they] have all the power and authority and the propensity for violence that [they] have back home, here in Canada."