It took eight heavily armed men only five minutes to drive two ersatz police vans through a hole in the perimeter fence of the Brussels Airport and onto the runway, lights flashing, where they then pried open the hold of a passenger aircraft headed to Switzerland, unloaded about 120 packages holding at least $50 million worth of polished and uncut diamonds, and sped off into diamond-heist infamy. No shots were fired, and the entire operation was over so quickly, the passengers on the aircraft had no idea anything was wrong until their flight was abruptly canceled. "This was a very precise, almost military-organized and well-executed robbery," airport spokesman Jan Van der Cruysse said Tuesday. (Watch a CNN report, and re-enactment of the heist, below.)
"They arrived at Brussels Airport armed with automatic weapons and dressed in police uniforms aboard two vehicles equipped with blue police lights," says Andrew Higgins in The New York Times. "But their most important weapon was information." The diamonds, from Antwerp, were loaded on the Zurich-bound aircraft from a Brinks armored van only about 12 minutes before takeoff and a few minutes before the plane started moving. And the Brussels Airport is swarming with police and security, in part because of its role as a key hub in Antwerp's lucrative diamond trade.
"I am certain this was an inside job," Doron Levy, an expert in airport security at the French risk management company Ofek, tells the Times. Such an "incredibly audacious and well organized" theft requires very experienced criminals with nerves of steel, but also lots of insider details. "In big 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."
Police found a burned-out van near the airport, but have not made any arrests. This was the first heist at the Brussels Airport since 2002, when it beefed up security after a string of diamond robberies in the 1990s. And "security officials say that events such as the Brussels robbery may be impossible to completely prevent," says Daniel Michaels in The Wall Street Journal.
All airports employ thousands of low-paid workers and face high staff turnover. People handling airfreight are aware of valuable consignments because every cargo shipment carries a waybill, which is similar to a passenger's boarding pass. Waybills must move openly through cargo systems so handlers can plan how to load freight. [Wall Street Journal]
The theft was a blow to the airport, which transports about $200 million worth of diamonds a day to and from Antwerp, about 25 miles away — and faces competition from a small Luxembourg airport that is promising more security. But the Antwerp diamond industry is the bigger loser. Although the declared value of the diamonds was $50 million, experts say the haul could be worth up to $350 million, making it potentially larger than the $100 million theft from the heart of the Antwerp World Diamond Centre in 2003. The real threat, though, is to Antwerp's dominance of the world's diamond trade, says Paul Waldie at Canada's Globe and Mail.
The industry has yet to fully recover from the 2008 financial crisis, which sent sales plunging. And Antwerp has seen its dominant position in the trade come under attack from offshore rivals, particularly in India. Things became serious enough that the industry and government banded together last year and produced a strategy, called Project 2020, to reclaim Antwerp's position. Part of the strategy included improving security, something that had been lacking for years — especially at the Brussels airport.... The government boosted security, but clearly not enough to prevent the newest theft. [Globe and Mail]