Last night, eight thieves cut a hole in a security fence at the Brussels, Belgium airport; drove up to a passenger plane bound for Zurich, Switzerland; flashed some guns; and carried away a package from the plane's baggage hold — a tranche of uncut diamonds worth an estimated $50 million. They never fired a shot, drove out the way they entered, and as of this writing have not been caught. Pretty slick.
Early reactions (this was reported late morning in Europe) focused on people who study airport security, who wonder how eight men with guns pulled right up to a loaded plane, violated an airport security cordon for several minutes, and didn't set off any alarms.
But a robbery of this size also catches the eyes of people who study the illegal diamond trade. A decade ago, concern over so-called "blood diamonds," which are diamonds mined in conflict zones, led to industry participation in a regulatory process designed to clarify a precious stone's place of origin. The goal was to make it harder to use illegal diamond sales to finance armed conflicts.
In effect since 2003, the Kimberley Process is a voluntary system that combines compliance from industry, government, and non-government monitors. The Brussels airport diamonds should fall under the Kimberly Process rules, which cover "rough" or uncut diamonds, not finished ones. The stolen diamonds were rough.
"If they were going from Belgium to Switzerland, and they were rough, they would have needed a Kimberley certificate," said Annie Dunneback of Global Witness, a London-based human rights organization that was a prime mover behind the Kimberley rules. The group was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, the year the rules went into effect. (They didn't win. Shirin Ebadi did).
But ten years on, the Kimberly Process isn't what it was, Dunneback said. Any band of thieves that thinks it's worth the risk to steal $50 million in raw diamonds is flouting more than airport security. "Certainly if [the diamonds] are rough, that’s a pretty big question mark over the Kimberley Process. How to make that quantity of diamonds disappear?" In theory, the Kimberley regulations would make fencing stones from a famous heist difficult. And yet, the gang was confident enough to go through with it.
Dunneback says that if Belgian police don't manage to recover the diamonds, the most likely way to fence them is through the world's main hub for polishing precious stones, India, by way of middlemen in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. Though that route includes participants in the Kimberley rules, the diamond industry largely polices itself in those markets, and the international convention doesn't work well.
"What we've found in the research we've done," she claimed, "is there are some connections there [between illegal dealers in India and suppliers in the Gulf states], and oversight is industry-driven. Which is to say there isn't any."
If true, that means this morning's robbery would be a black eye for the Kimberley regime. "I'm sure there will be discussions about this for the next six months," she said. After helping create the process, Global Witness is now a critic, it should be said. In 2011, the group quit the system—a system it set up—over complaints that it had been captured by the industry it was designed to regulate.
This is the second major diamond heist in Europe in two years. In 2011, a gang of armed men dressed in women's clothing stuck-up a Paris jewelry shop in broad daylight, getting away with more than $100 million in precious stones. The stolen rocks in that case were finished jewelry, not raw diamonds, so not subject to the Kimberley rules. The last major diamond robbery in Belgium was in 2003, the year the Kimberley rules went into effect. Thieves got away with more than $100 million that time too. Some of those stones were raw. They were never recovered and the perpetrators never caught.
Update: The scene of the crime has now been confirmed to be Brussels airport, last night; we've amended the post to reflect that. Some European reports are claiming the thieves' take to be as high as $350 million. Belgian police have not confirmed that.