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Binance’s Top CryptoCurrency Crime Investigator Detained in Nigeria

HomeCryptoBinance's Top CryptoCurrency Crime Investigator Detained in Nigeria

ABUJA, Nigeria — In a surprising turn of events, two top investigators from the cryptocurrency exchange Binance have been detained for over two weeks by Nigerian authorities without being charged, according to their families. The detentions appear to be connected to the Nigerian government’s recent move to restrict crypto trading as it tries to prop up its struggling national currency.

Tigran Gambaryan, an American citizen who leads Binance’s investigations into criminal use of cryptocurrencies, and Nadeem Anjarwalla, the company’s regional manager for Africa based in Kenya, traveled to the Nigerian capital of Abuja on Feb. 25. They had been invited by officials to discuss the government’s recent order to telecoms to block access to Binance and other crypto exchanges, which regulators blamed for enabling the devaluation of the naira and illicit fund flows.

But after an initial meeting the next day, the two men were unexpectedly detained, stripped of their passports, and have since been confined in a state guesthouse run by Nigeria’s National Security Agency, their families said. No formal charges have been filed.

“There’s no definite answer for anything — how he’s doing, what’s going to happen to him, when he’s coming back,” said Yuki Gambaryan, Mr. Gambaryan’s wife, in an interview. “And not knowing that is killing me.”

Mr. Gambaryan, 38, had previously spent over a decade as an agent with the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal investigations unit, spearheading groundbreaking cases against cryptocurrency-enabled money laundering, drug trafficking on dark web markets, and even exploitative crypto crimes against children. His highly public recruitment by Binance in 2021 was seen as part of the exchange’s efforts to bolster its compliance and shed its reputation for being a hub of illicit finance.

Mr. Anjarwalla, 35, joined Binance just over a year ago after previous government affairs roles. He is a dual citizen of Kenya and Britain.

The detentions have strained Binance’s relations with one of Africa’s largest economies at a volatile time when cryptocurrencies have become a critical financial lifeline across the continent amid economic turmoil. It also underscores how digital assets remain in regulators’ crosshairs globally as controversial potent tools for sanctions evasion and crime even as they gain mainstream adoption.

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A Binance spokesperson declined to comment on any potential allegations or demands from Nigeria related to the detentions, citing the ongoing situation. “We are working collaboratively with Nigerian authorities to bring Nadeem and Tigran back home safely to their families,” the spokesperson said. “They are professionals with the highest integrity and we will provide them all the support we can.”

From Hotel to ‘Guesthouse’ Detention

According to Mr. Gambaryan and Mr. Anjarwalla’s families, the two executives checked into hotels on Feb. 25 after arriving in Abuja from Dubai. The next day, they met with Nigerian officials as scheduled.

But shortly after the meeting, armed plain-clothes security agents entered their hotel rooms and instructed them to pack a bag for what they were told would be a week’s stay at a “guesthouse” run by the Nigerian intelligence services, their families said.

At the guesthouse, the men’s passports were seized and they were blocked from leaving the compound, which is staffed by armed guards. They have had only brief visitation allowances, under close supervision, from U.S. and U.K. officials over the past two weeks, their families said.

“Nadeem is a loving husband and father. He is my best friend,” said Elahe Anjarwalla, Mr. Anjarwalla’s wife, in a statement. “All I want is for Nadeem to be allowed to come back home to us.”

Mr. Anjarwalla, the father of an infant son, was hospitalized briefly last week after falling ill, potentially with malaria, according to his wife. He has since recovered and returned to the guesthouse.

Cracking Down on Crypto Trades

The detentions came just days after the Central Bank of Nigeria instructed commercial banks and telecoms companies on Feb. 5 to identify and block all transactions by crypto exchanges like Binance operating in the country. Nigerian officials accused the platforms of being conduits for money laundering and illicit financial flows that they said contributed to destabilizing the value of the national currency, the naira.

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The naira has been in free fall, having lost over a third of its value against the U.S. dollar in the past year amid widespread shortages, soaring inflation, and a struggling economy. Many Nigerians have turned to crypto as a financial exit, trading their naira for digital currencies like Bitcoin and Tether that hold value more reliably.

That flight to crypto appears to have rattled Nigerian authorities ahead of the recent presidential election. The regulator warned that crypto assets posed risks of terrorism financing, money laundering, and funding for illicit financial flows that “could undermine the national security of Nigeria.”

Some crypto experts say Nigeria is over-blaming digital currencies for deep-rooted economic woes caused by factors like issues in the country’s oil production, foreign debt, and fiscal policies under its former leadership.

“The naira’s decline is the result of broad economic mismanagement and a currency regime that is unsustainable in today’s global environment,” said Gauer Sanchez, lead crypto analyst at BetterShrooms, a decentralized finance advisory firm. “Banning crypto exchanges will not solve the fundamental economic issues at hand.”

From Silk Road to Binance

Mr. Gambaryan’s detention is a stunning fall from grace for someone who was once among America’s premier agents untangling financial crimes enabled by cryptocurrencies.

In his decade at the IRS criminal investigations unit from 2008 to 2018, Mr. Gambaryan spearheaded numerous high-profile cases that set precedents in the emerging field of crypto-tracing and tackling crimes like dark web drug dealing and money laundering using blockchain analysis techniques.

He helped investigate the theft of over 650,000 bitcoins, worth billions today, from the Mt. Gox exchange in 2014. The next year, he was part of the probe that traced the servers running the notorious Silk Road dark web drug market. In 2016, he helped develop crypto-tracing technologies used to take down the Welcome to Video child exploitation materials network.

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“The cases he was involved in are a who’s who of the biggest crypto cases of that time,” said Will Frentzen, a former federal prosecutor who worked closely with Mr. Gambaryan. “He was innovative in ways that very few people had figured out.”

After leaving the IRS in 2018, Mr. Gambaryan briefly joined the special investigations team at cryptocurrency intelligence firm CipherBlade. His recruitment by Binance in 2021 as head of anti-money laundering and investigations was seen as a coup for the exchange to bolster its compliance as it came under growing legal scrutiny.

Just months before Mr. Gambaryan joined, Binance had been the subject of a major Reuters investigation detailing how its lax security and compliance helped fuel a rise in financial crimes like money laundering, hacks, and theft. Last year, as part of a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors, Binance agreed to pay $4.3 billion in fines and implement enhanced anti-money laundering practices overseen by an independent monitor.

“He’s done so much good for this country throughout his career,” said Mr. Gambaryan’s wife Yuki. “I believe it’s his turn to get the same amount of support from his country” to secure his release.

Despite the assurances of Nigerian officials initially cooperating with the two Binance investigators, the circumstances of their extended detentions remain murky.

As of Tuesday, neither man had been charged with a crime, their families said. U.S. State Department officials and their British counterparts have gotten limited access for welfare visits but the men have not been allowed to speak freely, fueling worries about their wellbeing.

Mr. Gambaryan has described the experience to his wife as like being trapped in the 1993 film “Groundhog Day,” the same routine repeated each day in confinement.

“Sometimes it feels like I’ll never see him again,” Mrs. Gambaryan said. “I’m just begging them to let him go.”

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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