Private spies and endangered species

One of the greatest changes in espionage in the past thirty years has been the use of private organisations. The intelligence services of all countries now use private intelligence companies to expand their reach and to add an extra level of deniability if things go wrong. Former spies have found a very lucrative existence by heading for the private sector after retirement. Ten years ago, in 2013, a New York Times article claimed that 70% of the US intelligence budget is spent on private contractors. This would mean that in 2013 the sector was worth $56 Billion. You could easily double that now. As an example: Pluribus International Corporation provides services for the NSA including translators. On this site we have already highlighted Booz Allen Hamilton (see under Private Intel). Their revenue in 2018 was $6.2 Billion, most of it from US government contracts.

But the use of spies has even extended into the charitable sector where former spies sometimes lend their skills “pro bono” to their chosen cause. An example of this type of espionage occurred when a trial concluded in Nigeria this week and the story was covered by a BBC News documentary. The trial was of a gang that had been smuggling pangolin scales on the international black market. This is a multi-million dollar venture, the pangolins are critically endangered and a high price is paid for their scales in the Chinese herbal medicine trade. The operation, codenamed “Hydra”, took four years. The investigation team first went for the source, the suppliers. Multiple undercover officers posed as buyers and thus acting as bait to try to create contacts with the suppliers. Eventually they bit. The key meeting involved a female Vietnamese operative posing as a buyer and contacting the gang in Vietnam. She found that, being a woman, the arrogant smugglers were more likely to drop their guard. She cultivated Morybinet Berete, the leader of the gang, based in Nigeria. The team placed him under surveillance with the codename “Genie”. From clues in a WhatsApp video that he posted they were able to get the address of the yard he was using as his base. Then, in July 2021, they got the NCS (Nigerian Customs Service) to raid the address. Three men were arrested at the yard (not Berete, he wasn’t there and went on the run) and hundreds of thousands of Pangolin skins were seized.

Search of the men’s phones revealed the identities of the Asian buyers. The ring leader Phn Chi (codename “Big Mac”) was traced to Vietnam. The Vietnamese officer now pretended to be working for a Chinese contact. In May 2022, the buyers were arrested in Lagos from where they planned to ship 20 tonnes of Pangolin skins. They had also been buying huge quantities of rhino horn. There was a wealth of evidence including electronic ledgers seized when Big Mac was arrested. They pleaded guilty at trial and four men got six years each – which is not much but then very few are ever caught at all. Berete is still on the run but the team are confident of catching him.

The lead officer was Steve Carmody, a former Australian police officer with experience of investigating drugs smuggling gangs. The investigation team has a secret base in the Netherlands. All far more “James Bond” than you would expect from charity work.

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