Security experts say the perpetrators of this week’s $50 million heist at Brussels airport seemed to have gathered a lot of inside information—and that might be their undoing.
“The robbery in Brussels was a perfect crime, with a high loss and nobody injured,” says Martin Winckel, founder of International Jeweller Security, a European company. “This type of crime and the booty will need a criminal organization in the background.”
“This crime could only take place with inside information,” he continues. “The criminals need information when, where, how, how many persons, etc. Insiders could be from the dealers in Antwerp, from [shipping services], from the airport, from the airline, or all together.”
“As robberies go, this was absolutely spectacular,” agrees Anthony Roman of Roman & Associates, a global security, investigation, and risk management firm. “There was absolute precision, successful deception. That is unprecedented. They required incredibly detailed information that would have to come from the inside.”
Roman even suggests that the information may have been revealed as the result of a high-tech hack.
John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers’ Security Alliance, doesn’t argue that the thieves worked things out to the very last detail—but says that sometimes the required info can be gleaned by observations. “They make these diamond deliveries all the time,” he says. “Sometimes you can get info by just casing the place.”
The first thing police will do, Roman says, is to try to find out how the thieves got their information—and question everyone who could possibly be involved. “They will interview all human sources,” he says. “Who could have worked on the armored car schedule? Who had access to the information? They will need background information on all personnel: Are they disgruntled in some way? Do they have a monetary need? Do they associate with people who have this as a known modus operandi?”
And that could be what trips them up. “There are just too many people involved,” Kennedy says. “Eventually somebody does something stupid, tries to spend a lot of money. The discipline to keep all these people in line is very difficult.”
As far as who did it, Roman says “the robbers themselves were incredibly professional. You would have to look at people who were trained in the military or police officers. That is how commandos work—with precision and speed.”
He adds that the entire incident raises troubling questions not just for industry security—but for security in general. “This airport is very secure, it’s one of the hubs of Europe,” notes Roman. “If this airport can be penetrated, any airport can be penetrated.” (Indeed, a drunk driver got onto a Philadelphia airport runway last year.) And Roman thinks the incident could have been far worse: The thieves could have hijacked the plane.
If there is any consolation here, this robbery has gotten so much attention that Kennedy thinks the criminals will be caught. “My belief is that most of these things are ultimately solved,” he says. “The chance of recovery of the goods is pretty small, but for most of the really big hits over the last 10 or 15 years, they have ultimately arrested some, if not all, of the participants.”
“Right now, they are throwing armies at this,” he adds. “This is a challenge to a national industry [of Belgium]. And chances are these are professional criminals. If they are not caught with this, they can be caught with what they might have done in the past and what they will do in the future.”
Finally, a few thoughts of my own:
First, I agree with the Guardian columnist who said that while the media, Hollywood, and authors looking for movie deals have a tendency to puff up thefts like this—“this needs to be a movie now,” one blogger has already declared—there is nothing glamorous about this. This may have been well-planned and well-thought-out, but it was also a cruel, dangerous act. These men stuck sub-machine guns—which they were likely prepared to use—in the faces of innocent people, including a pilot and baggage handler. Like the people in this industry who are continually threatened, those workers were just trying to get through their day. The lives of the 20 or so passengers on the plane were at risk as well. It is also possible these theives may have links to terrorists or other gangs of criminals.
Second, the fact that many people think that these goods (both rough and polished) can easily be dumped into the mainstream of commerce shows—again—the need for the industry to beef up its chain-of-custody programs, particularly the Kimberley Process system of warranties. And while we are pretty used to hearing NGOs complain that the Kimberley Process is ineffective, it’s striking that security experts like Roman don’t think much of it either.
For now, to avoid buying these goods, Kennedy recommends dealers carefully follow standard rules, like the Patriot Act. “Any suspicious large quantity of goods out there should raise an antenna,” he says.
And while most people think the rough will be polished and sold, Winckel raises another possibility: “[The thieves could] wait half a year and then a lawyer will get in contact with a shipping company and sell the diamonds back for half the price the insurers have paid. Same thing criminals do with high-end paintings stolen in museums.”
Third, in the United States, the Jewelers’ Security Alliance acts as a clearinghouse for security information and safety tips. But this raises the question: Why isn’t there a group like that on the international level? (Industry security organizations do exist in Canada and the United Kingdom.)
As it turns out, JSA has been working on an international jewelry security group for some time—and even received some JCK grant money last year to make it happen. Kennedy pitched the idea to CIBJO and to international insurers, but so far, he says, “it’s an uphill climb.” If there is a silver lining here, it demonstrates the global industry has a real need to improve its security in a collective way.