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Kenya Needs to Get the Surur Extradition Right

On July 19, 1989, Kenya stood the world on its ear when it burned 12 tonnes of seized ivory at Nairobi National Park. It was an acknowledged publicity stunt but also an emphatic statement of Kenya’s position on the ivory trade. The ivory burn was considered a success and was most certainly a factor when a few months later, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) essentially banned the international trade of African elephant ivory. Since that time, Kenya has been unwavering in its stance on prohibiting the international sale of ivory for any reason.

Paradoxically, this steely resolve and eloquence seen on the world stage has not been mirrored in the courtrooms of the country regarding its prosecution of major ivory trafficking cases. The prosecution of ivory logistician Feisal Mohammed Ali has become the poster boy of this failure after his 2016 conviction was overturned two years later by a higher court. Since 2016, Kenya has registered three more acquittals in major ivory trafficking cases. Kenya has yet to register a single conviction in a major ivory trafficking prosecution dating back to 2009.

This sets the stage for the extradition proceedings of Abubakar Mansur Mohammed Surur. Surur, a Kenyan national, was arrested upon arrival in Mombasa ten weeks ago on a charter flight from Yemen. Surur is wanted in the United States. In a 2019 grand jury indictment registered in a New York South District court, Surur was named as co-accused with three others: Liberian Moazu Kromah (the apparent ring leader); Guinean Amara Cherif; and a fellow Kenyan Abdi Hussein Ahmed. They are charged with wildlife offenses relating to the trafficking of rhino horn and elephant ivory and subsequent money laundering. Surur and Hussein Ahmed are together facing the lone drug charge of conspiring to distribute more than 10kg of heroin in the United States.

This group of four is referred to in the indictment as a “transnational criminal enterprise,” or “enterprise” for short. While based primarily in Kampala, Uganda, it is alleged that they were actively involved in all aspects of trafficking ivory and rhino horn in Kenya, Mozambique, DR Congo, Guinea, Senegal, and Tanzania. DNA analysis of many of the related seizures presents compelling evidence that the ivory origins included many other sub-Saharan countries. The clients were invariably Chinese or Vietnamese cartels or brokers selling to the same cartels.

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

A fireman watches 105 tons of ivory and 1 ton of rhino horn burn in Nairobi National Park on 30th April 2016. They were set ablaze by President Uhuru Kenyatta in the largest ivory burn in history. (Mwangi Kirubi)

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 at a very high level. Moazu Kromah, himself, had been arrested in Kampala with 1.3 tonnes of ivory in February 2017 in a case that is still before the Uganda courts with no end in sight.

Feisal Mohamed Ali did ivory business with the “enterprise” and Feisal worked for the Akasha drug family based in Kenya. Two of the Akasha’s brothers, Baktash and Ibrahim, were the subject of the last high profile extradition process in Kenya. In November 2014, the two brothers with two others were arrested in Mombasa for the purposes of extradition to the U.S. on substantive drug trafficking charges. Their extradition process continued for three years before the U.S. apparently had enough. In January 2017, “arrangements” were made between the U.S. and Kenya, away from the influence of the Mombasa courts, and the four were flown to New York. It turned out to be for the best as in October 2018 it was revealed that Baktash and Ibrahim had conspired to pay “hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to the judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials” in Kenya to ensure that the extradition hearings went their way. To date, none of these corrupted persons within the criminal justice system have been publicly identified.

This is the backdrop as the extradition process continues in a Nairobi court on October 7th. Moazu Kromah is still in a New York prison after his Kampala arrest and is reportedly now looking for a new lawyer after a recent plea deal did not materialize. Amara Cherif, also arrested in June 2019, is in a New York prison as well. He had been hiding in Senegal, already on the Interpol Red Notice relating to his involvement in an ivory seizure in Dar es Salaam in June 2016. He was finally extradited to the U.S. in April 2020. He pled not guilty to his charges. There is no news of Abdi Hussein Ahmed. Recent media outlets make reference to a co-conspirator, Badru Abdul Aziz Saleh, but his relationship to the “enterprise” is not clear.

The initial glitter of the Surur arrest started fading last week when it was revealed that this was not the first arrest of Surur relating to the indictment. Despite initial police claims in Mombasa that they had been looking for Surur for two years, evidence was presented at the Milimani court indicating that Surur had actually been arrested in Kenya just over one year previously.

While the exact circumstances of the arrest are muddied, it is clear that Surur did appear in the small court within the periphery of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in July 2019 for reasons relating to the U.S. indictment. What is not clear are the exact circumstances surrounding his release. The indicators point to a communication breakdown between agencies. In any event, Surur was not held in custody and shortly thereafter fled Kenya for Yemen. Breakdowns in communication between agencies is often a sign of “irregularities.”

While the investigation into the “enterprise” was not Kenyan, this cartel had a significant impact on Kenyan elephant and rhino horn populations. There are presently four prosecutions ongoing in Mombasa for ivory trafficking-related offenses, two of them are entering their eighth year. All four are either definitively linked to the “enterprise” and/or have Kampala roots.

From a wildlife crime perspective, this extradition will be a litmus test for Kenyan courts. The fact that Noordin Haji, Kenya’s head prosecutor, personally represented the State at Milimani court in this matter has to be seen as a sign that Kenya recognizes the importance of this case. This is as good a time as any to start legitimately cracking down on ivory traffickers.

On December 18th, 2020, it was ruled in Milimani Law Court, Nairobi, by Justice Martha Muthuku that Mansur was to be “repatriated and surrendered to the U.S. government in 15 days.” He was flown to New York on January 25th and appeared in New York South District Court the next day and pleaded not guilty.