The Brussels Airport Diamond Heist

Feb 27, 2013 - by J. Patrick O'Connor - 1 Comment

Updated May 8, 2013

Helvetic Airways aircraft at the Brussels international airport (Photo: Associated Press)

In a daring, commado-style operation, eight masked, heavily armed gunmen pulled off a lightening quick heist of more than $50 million worth of diamonds.     

Update: May 8, 2013 Nearly three months after the spectacularly daring diamond heist at Brussels Airport, authorities announced on May 8, 2013 that at least 31 people – spread out over France, Switzerland and Belgium – have been detained in connection with the estimated $50 million theft.

The Associated Press reported that a Frenchman, who is believed to have been one of the airport robbers, was arrested in France, while eight people, including a lawyer, were detained in Geneva, and 24 in and around Brussels.

“In Switzerland, we have found diamonds that we can say are coming from the heist, and in Belgium large amounts of money have been found. And the investigation is ongoing,” said Jean-Marc Meilleur, spokesperson for the Brussels prosecutor’s office.  In Geneva, a police statement said “a very important quantity of diamonds was seized” during the roundup of suspects. 

A Swiss investigator told reporters that almost a third of the stolen diamonds were seized in the Geneva raids and that about $110,000 in cash and a number of luxury cars were also confiscated. The unnamed investigator said all eight of those detained in Geneva were middlemen and intermediaries involved in the cutting and selling of the stolen diamonds.

by J. Patrick O’Connor

For centuries, Antwerp has been the world’s center of diamond trading and remains so today.  According to a spokesperson for the Antwerp World Diamond Centre about $200 million in diamonds enter and leave Antwerp daily, with about 99 percent of that moving through the Brussels Airport in several shipments each week. The spokesperson said that diamonds traded in Antwerp last year had a total value of $51.9 billion, accounting for 80 percent of the world’s rough diamond trade and 50 percent of trade in polished stones. The only other major diamond center is Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

Diamond brokers from around the world store their diamonds and gems – sometimes for as little as a day – in one or more of the 160 safety-deposit boxes located in an underground vault at the Antwerp Diamond Centre. Once a deal is brokered for the sale of the diamonds, shipment is arranged through the Zaventem International Airport in Brussels. The diamonds are placed in small packets and driven by armored Brinks vans to the airport.  On the 25-mile trip to the airport, the Brinks vans are accompanied by armed escorts that peel away once the Brinks vans arrive at the airport’s locked gate.

On the evening of February 18, 2013, eight heavily armed masked men were outfitted in airport security uniforms and drove two black vehicles that had police-style lights on top.  They arrived at Zaventem International Airport in Brussels in darkness intent on pulling off the most audacious heist in airport history. They knew, due to construction near the main security gate, that gate would be unlocked. Using wire cutters, they opened a section of the other 10-foot-high security fence on the perimeter of the airport and then waited eight minutes for the Brinks van to unload some 125 packets of diamonds in the cargo hold of Flight LX789, a Helvetic Airways jet waiting to depart in the next 18 minutes for Zurich, Switzerland.

Minutes after the diamonds had been offloaded from the Brinks van and the doors to the cargo hold locked, a black Audi A8 sedan and a black Mercedes van with blue police lights flashing pulled up next to the airplane at 7:47 p.m.  By 7:52 p.m. the vehicles and 121 packets of the diamonds were gone in a lightening quick and incredibly competent robbery.

With commando efficiency, some of the gunmen stood in front of the jet plane pointing machine guns equipped with red laser sights at the pilots and Brinks crew while others calmly – speaking French – ordered ground workers to open the aircraft’s cargo doors.  Without firing a shot, the robbers unloaded all but four of the diamond packets that contained packages of both polished and uncut diamonds and sped away within five minutes of arriving.

The London Daily Telegraph reported that most of the diamonds were uncut and that 90 percent were bound for the Indian city of Surat, via Zurich. Initial estimates placed the theft at $50 million, but because most of the diamonds were uncut and could possibly be worth far more one expert told The Wall Street Journal that the take could come to more than $300 million, which would make the Brussels heist the largest airport robbery in history by over $200 million. In 2005, an armed gang hijacked a Brinks truck at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and escaped with an estimated $90 million of diamonds. 

The 29 passengers onboard were unaware of anything amiss until informed after the robbers had made their getaway that their flight had been cancelled. No one inside the airport happen to take notice either.

“There is a gap of only a few minutes” between the loading of the gems and the moment the plane starts to move, said Caroline De Wolf, a spokesperson for the Antwerp World Diamond Centre. “The people who did this knew there was going to be this gap and when.”

Ine Van Wymersch, a Brussels prosecutor, said the police were investigating whether the robbers had inside information. “This is an obvious possibility,” she said.

Quoting airport security insiders, The Wall Street Journal reported that “the precision of the Brussels heist suggests extensive help from airport insiders,” noting that “all airports employ thousands of low-paid workers and face high turnover.”

An aviation-security specialist knowledgeable about the Brussels Airport robbery told the Journal “the thieves appeared to have detailed information about both the cargo and operations at the airport, and likely had help from people at the airport.”

“I am certain this was an inside job,” Doron Levy, an expert in airport security at a French risk management company,” told The New York Times. The theft, he added, was “incredibly audacious and well-organized,” and beyond the means of all but the most experienced and strong nerved criminals. “In jobs like this we are often surprised by the level of preparation and information: they know so much they probably know the employees by name.”

(Photo Mirror UK)

Levy told The Times that “the audacity of the crime recalled in some ways the so-called Pink Panther robberies – a long series of brazen raids on high-end jewelers in Geneva, London and elsewhere attributed to criminal gangs from the Balkans. But he said the military precision of Monday’s diamond robbery and the targeting of an airport suggested a far higher level of organization than the cruder Pink Panther operations.”

The Mercedes Vaneo used in the robbery was a stolen taxi. It was found burned out within 10 miles of the airport shortly after the robbers fled. The Audi, which had French registration plates, has not been recovered.

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