Skip to main content

Diamond heists are forever

By Scott Andrew Selby, Special to CNN
February 21, 2013 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
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
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT