Skip to main content

Diamond heists are forever

By Scott Andrew Selby, Special to CNN
updated 9:17 AM EST, Thu February 21, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • On Tuesday, armed men pulled a heist and made off with about $50 million worth of diamonds
  • Scott Andrew Selby: You can never let down the guard when it comes to diamonds
  • He says there are always clever people who will try to exploit any holes in the security
  • Selby: Those tasked with securing highly valuable items should never grow complacent

Editor's note: Scott Andrew Selby is the co-author of "Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History."

(CNN) -- Over Valentine's Day weekend in 2003, a group of Italian thieves broke into a massive vault in the heart of Antwerp, Belgium's diamond district and got away with an estimated $500 million worth of precious stones and diamonds. While the rest of the city was busy celebrating romance and love, these tenacious men peeled open safe deposit box after safe deposit box, leaving excess treasure on the ground like it was garbage.

When the security guard came to unlock the vault door on Monday morning, he found it already opened and the vault floor littered with millions of dollars worth of diamonds, gold, semiprecious gems and other items the thieves left behind. Everyone was stunned. Despite the heavy security, the unimaginable happened.

Drag queens, fake beards, chocolates: Notable diamond heists

Ten years later, it happened again. On Monday night, a well-organized group of armed men dressed like police officers swarmed a passenger plane in Brussels, Belgium, and made off with about $50 million worth of diamonds.

Scott Andrew Selby
Scott Andrew Selby

It just shows -- you can never let down your guard when it comes to diamonds.

The problem with safeguarding diamonds is that they are so incredibly valuable and easy to resell that thieves will always be trying to get their hands on them. It is important for those tasked with securing such high value items to never grow complacent. The more valuable a target, the more likely that there will be those out there biding their time and learning the mechanics of the security measures in order to break them. Once a heist occurs, it is nearly impossible to trace back the stolen diamonds.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Just as banks have problems with robbers desiring their cash, those in the diamond trade have to constantly prepare for the possibility that one day, after years and years of nothing happening, they will be under attack.

In the 2003 heist, the vault was thought to be impregnable in part because of the surrounding high security of the Antwerp diamond district. But the clever thieves bypassed the security by entering through the rear of the building that held the vault via a garage door that opened outside the secure portion of the district. After that, they had to beat a combination lock, key lock, heat detector, motion detector, light detector and more.

Monday's heist involved a transfer of diamonds from the Antwerp diamond district to the Brussels airport. I've seen these diamond runs before. A Brinks armored truck arrives in nearby Antwerp, passes through the extensive security surrounding the diamond district and picks up cash and diamonds. Then it takes the valued goods to the Brussels airport to be flown to diamond centers around the world.

How could diamond thieves sell them?
Pulling off a massive diamond heist

Key elements of the security in these runs include the armored truck, which would be difficult, although not impossible to neutralize. The runs are also accompanied by police officers equipped with submachine guns and body armor. Antwerp's diamond district, much like Brussels' airport, has hundreds of closed circuit cameras, armed guards and barriers against unauthorized vehicles as part of its security measures.

The thieves must have watched and noticed that as impressive as this security looks, there were holes. Or perhaps they had an inside source that alerted them to a vulnerability. Once the trucks arrived at the airport with their police escort, they would make their delivery and then leave. So for a very small window of time, only unarmed cargo workers would guard the jewels.

Those transporting diamonds assumed that the security at a major international airport would be enough to protect their goods. Now they know they can't assume anything. The thieves just needed to get around all the normal airport security that prevented them from walking into the airport and getting to the plane through the front door. There were holes in the airport's security wide enough to drive a truck through, and that's literally what happened. The thieves cut some fences, drove onto the tarmac, grabbed the diamonds and got out fast.

In the age of terrorism, it is shocking that armed men were able to make it onto a tarmac right beside an airplane filled with passengers. The thieves took advantage of this assumption by everyone involved that an airport tarmac is a safe place. The people transporting the diamonds should have made sure they were secure until the moment the plane lifted off the ground and maybe even have someone on board to protect them in flight.

Instead, the armed police who brought the diamonds to the airport were gone by the time the robbers drove up to the plane.

Anytime that you are protecting something of enormous value, you need to stay aware that there are smart, talented people who will spend the time needed to carefully dissect the security and exploit any weakness in it.

Those protecting diamonds need to be running scenarios where they imagine ways to negate or bypass their own security. Perhaps outside experts -- or teams -- could be used, one side trying to achieve a criminal objective, while the other thinks of ways of beefing up security to prevent them.

Ten years after the world-record-setting diamond heist in Antwerp, this week's diamond robbery is a sharp reminder that sophisticated criminal outfits are still out there and that even the most impressive security system could have unnoticed holes. As long as we value diamonds, there will be those who apply their intelligence and creativity to stealing them.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Scott Andrew Selby.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:25 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT