Fatal error that got ivory king on the run arrested

Mansur Mohamed in the dock at Milimani law courts in Nairobi on September 28, last year. [File, Standard]

Mansur Mohamed Surur knew his fate had been sealed in a New York courtroom on May 7, 2019. On this day, an indictment was returned and filed in the United States district court for the southern District of New York, charging Mansur with violating criminal laws of the US.

“Surur, an African-based trafficker of wildlife and drugs, along with others both known and unknown, has been part of a transnational criminal conspiracy that began in or about at least December 2012, which is based in the Republic of Uganda and surrounding countries and which has engaged in the large-scale trafficking and smuggling of rhino horns and elephant ivory,” read the indictment.

Ten days later, on May 17, 2019, the court issued a warrant of arrest for a man who law enforcement agencies believed to be one of the biggest wildlife traffickers in the world. At that time, Mansur, who had been in the illegal game business since 2012, was in Kampala.

“This is therefore to command you forthwith to arrest the said Mansur Mohamed Surur alias Mansour and bring him before me or any other magistrate to be dealt with according to Law, for which this shall be your warrant,” read the warrant of arrest.

By this time, Mansur, whose occupation on legal documents states his profession as a driver, was spending his time between Mombasa, Eldoret and Uganda among friends, family and business acquaintances.

For the next few months he did this successfully, evading arrest, sneaking in and out of Kenya to Kampala via the Busia border. In August 2019, the noose tightened when Interpol joined the hunt for Mansur by issuing a warrant of arrest.

Interpol on the hunt

“Interpol Nairobi shares with you intelligence of the above captioned Kenyan individuals wanted by the government of the United States for serious crimes…the duo are linked to transnational network of criminals dealing and trafficking drugs, elephant tusks and rhino horn,” Interpol wrote in a Memo dated August 8, 2019. With Interpol on the hunt for Mansur, it became hard for him to slip in and out of Uganda as he pleased.

So over the next few months he plotted to ditch his East African base and look for a safer location to run his business. He left the country for Yemen, a place he would spend considerable time until July 2020, when a combination of loneliness and a feeling of invincibility, perhaps from his years in the underground world, made him tempt fate, leading to his arrest.

The series of events that led to his eventual extradition to the US began with a letter written by the Yemeni government to a local airline company on July 13, 2020. The letter was a request looking to charter a flight from Mombasa, to the city of Seiyun and back to Mombasa.

The purpose was to evacuate Yemeni nationals from Mombasa and bring back Kenyans stuck in Yemen on a return flight. After receiving the letter, Skyward Express Limited in turn wrote to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for clearance.

The subject of the letter was ‘request for repatriation flights.’

“We make reference to a charter flight request by the Kenyan Diaspora Association in Yemen to repatriate Yemeni nationals in Kenya as well as Kenyan nationals in Yemen,” read the letter. “We take this opportunity to request approval to operate and through your office, the applicable Yemen CAA Landing Permit necessary to operate this flight.”

The request, dated July 20, 2020, from Skyward Express was received by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on July 23, 2020.

The aircraft, registration 5Y SMK, was a DHC8-300. The proposed date of flight by Skyward was July 28, 2020.

A day later the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote to Yemeni authorities on behalf of Skyward, detailing the flight details.

“Kindly note that diplomatic aircraft clearance has been granted to the embassy of Yemen chartered Skyward Express limited scheduled to overfly/land Kenyan airspace on July 28, 2020 from Nairobi to Seiyun and Back via Mombasa,” read the communication from the ministry to Yemen.

The clearance number issued was MFA/PRO.91002(374).

On July 28, 2020, all approvals having been handled, Captain F Kaguta, First Officer Abdirahman M and Flight Attendants C Kariuki, W Ochieng’ and Pascal W left Nairobi for the mission of taking Yemeni nationals back home and bringing back Kenyans stranded as a result of lockdowns necessitated by Covid-19.

On that same day, after the flights had been confirmed, Mansur walked to the Bin Aliyan travel office and reserved a seat on Skyward return flight to Mombasa, paying some $600 (about Sh60,000) via money transfer through the Alamqy Money Exchange.

He was willing to risk it all to be with family. In fact, details about his arrest warrant had gone quiet. The plane from Seiyun had 46 passengers on board. Listed as passenger number 36 on the manifest provided by the Yemen Ground Handling Company was Mansur.

Unknown to him, the minute he made a booking for the flight, he was a marked man. And from that time on, a multi-agency team could only pray that he makes it to the flight. He did.

Thirty-two minutes past midnight, the plane taxied into Moi International Airport. Unknown to Mansur, officers lay in wait. The few steps he took from the plane to the arrivals section of the airport were his last as a free man. Minutes after he set foot on his motherland, Mansur was arrested, arraigned and extradited to the US to face wildlife crimes charges.