Is A Notorious People Smuggler Back In Business?
By Aubrey BelfordApril 19, 2013
A convicted people smuggler named Hasan Ayoub appears to be back managing smuggling operations in Indonesia. His re-emergence demonstrates the power of reputation in a shadowy and lucrative business.
It took nine hours on February 21, on the perilous waters between Indonesia and Christmas Island, to convince Mahmoud Zarify and about 120 other passengers that they had to turn back, or face death. Their boat of asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Pakistan was severely overloaded, and seemed like it would be unable to manage the journey.
The boat eventually made landfall on an isolated stretch of beach on Java’s south coast, and capsized in the shallows. Everyone survived, but within hours, Indonesian authorities arrived, taking the passengers into detention. For the time being, the hopes of more than 100 people for gaining refuge in Australia had been dashed.
Also suffering a setback was one man who has already seen Australia’s shores — the apparent organiser of this people-smuggling attempt, Hasan Ayoub.
Ayoub, a Pakistani national, had been one of Australia’s major scalps in its war on people smuggling a decade ago; arrested abroad, he had been extradited and jailed in Australia. But now he is again a free man. And it appears he’s back in business.
“[Ayoub] told us the boat was good, but he didn’t tell us how many people [would be onboard],” Zarify, an Afghan, who says he fled his country after receiving threats from the Taliban over his work on a US aid project, told The Global Mail when he was contacted in detention in the West Java region of Tasikmalaya. “Of course we were angry … maybe one of the reasons we couldn’t go through was because of too many people.”
The limited details available on Ayoub’s likely return to Australia, and his movements since he was last here, offer an insight into how people smuggling works in Indonesia. Highly organised and highly lucrative, it’s a business in which establishing a good name – or brand – is key to drawing in customers. It’s also a business in which success breeds fakes, imitators and the need for front men.
This is what we know so far of the career of Hasan Ayoub, also known as Naeem Ahmad Chaudhry. In 2000, he left his wife and child behind in Pakistan and traveled to Indonesia, to cash in on the trade in smuggling people to Australia. Over a period of less than a year, he became a central figure in a smuggling operation that brought hundreds of asylum seekers to Australia.
He was arrested in Cambodia in July 2001 alongside another well-known smuggler, Abraham Lauhenapessy, also known as Captain Bram. But while Captain Bram managed to secure his own release, and spent another six years eluding arrest, Ayoub was deported to Thailand and then extradited to Australia. On 16 December 2004, Ayoub was sentenced by the District Court of Western Australia to two concurrent terms in prison — one of 10 years and another of 12 years — which were to include the time served in prison since his arrest in December 2001. The sentence specified a non-parole period of seven years, for the seriousness of the crime of having organised two boats to Australia.
In sentencing, judge Peter Nisbet told Ayoub that his actions “involved the cynical manipulation and abuse of people who are often at the lowest ebb in their lives”. Ayoub was paroled on 17 December 2008 and deported on 31 January 2009.
After that, he apparently dropped off the map.
The trail of Ayoub’s activities after he returned to Indonesia is murky. Even establishing if the person operating under his name is really him — or an impersonator — is difficult.
As recently as last year, a man using Ayoub’s name set up shop in Indonesia, charging approximately $5,000 per person for passage to Australia — that’s about $600,000 for a boat with 120 passengers on board — according to interviews with a number of asylum seekers. “Ayoub” organised at least three boats in January and February of this year, and has likely organised more since.
The man known as Ayoub does seem to enjoy a certain notoriety as a smuggler, which would suggest he is the same person who was detained in Australia. Zarify, in detention in Tasikmalaya, says he called Ayoub after a friend traveled safely on one of his boats in January. And Zarify had also heard tales of success that go back to Ayoub’s pre-prison days: “I knew some friends that went, I think it was 2000. They used the same guy, Hasan Ayoub, and they [got] to Christmas Island,” Zarify said.
Out of the 35 asylum seekers detained alongside Zarify, all contacted Ayoub either by phone or via an associate. It is the nature of the people-smuggling business that asylum seekers rarely get to meet anyone above lower-level operatives. “I’m not sure it’s himself because I didn’t meet him,” Zarify says.
Only one source reached by The Global Mail — a long-term asylum seeker who has had extensive contact with smugglers — said he had seen Ayoub in the flesh, and was later able to identify him from a photo.
The source provided two phone numbers, said to be used by Ayoub to organise boats to Australia. When an Urdu-speaker acting on behalf of The Global Mail rang one of the numbers, pretending to be a prospective passenger, the man on the other end identified himself as Ayoub and offered a berth on one of his boats for US$4,700. The fare would be given to a third party in the Pakistani city of Quetta, and would only be payable if the boat arrived safely.
When The Global Mail called the man later for an interview, he claimed we had a wrong number and hung up.
It’s uncertain if Ayoub has really returned to Indonesia, and whether he is at the head of an operation, or a helper or an adviser, or merely a figurehead. But at least one other person has falsely adopted Ayoub’s name, according to the source who visually identified him.
The Australian Federal Police, which operates a liaison office in Jakarta, could not confirm that Ayoub has re-entered the smuggling business in Indonesia. But the head of the AFP in Indonesia, Commander Chris Sheehan, says it is not uncommon for people jailed for smuggling to get back in the business.
“I guess for a bloke like him, if you look at the number of ventures, boats, that he’s probably organised over the years – and he was prosecuted for some of them and went to jail for a period of time – he’s probably just made his risk assessment that there’s too much money to be made,” Sheehan says.
In that sense, Sheehan adds, “It’s just like any other form of organised crime.”
According to Sheehan, there are roughly half-a-dozen regional syndicates involved in people smuggling, each headed by one or two people, often operating out of third countries such as Afghanistan or Pakistan. But the syndicates are not uniform in how they work. Sub-syndicates within each take responsibilities for different parts of the operation — such as acquiring boats or recruiting passengers. The lines between one group and another are often blurred at the local level.
“We know who a lot of these people are at the top levels, we’ve got a really good idea of who they are,” Sheehan says. But collecting evidence of their involvement in people smuggling and securing a conviction are another thing.
The head of the Indonesian police force’s Australian-supported anti-people-smuggling taskforce, Colonel Budi Santoso, said it’s often hard to determine the true identities of smugglers. “Often, the people out in the field, the first, second, and the third layers, won’t know who’s running the network. It’s a closed system.”
It’s in this cloudy world that Ayoub’s name is now circulating. According to interviews with asylum seekers, many top smugglers appear to be operating under multiple aliases, while in other cases more than one person is laying claim to a name. Smugglers have been known to pose as syndicate heads to members of their own ethnic group, while in fact they simply work for – or sell passengers on to – bosses higher up the food chain.
What is clear is that the brand that goes with the name Hasan Ayoub depends on the fortunes of his boats at sea. Ayoub had crammed more than 120 people on the boat that failed to reach Australia in February. The boat could perhaps reasonably have carried around 40.
In detention in Tasikmalaya, his former passengers have no compunction about revealing his identity. The reason for that is simple, says Mahran Ali, an Afghan who was on the February boat.
“Ayoub is greedy,” he says.