The audacious raid by eight armed robbers at Brussels Airport on 18 February has raised the stakes once again in the cat-and-mouse game between criminals and security professionals, with diamond traders expressing concerns about airport security.
Police say that eight armed robbers dressed in police uniforms and carrying weapons breached airport security by cutting through a perimeter security fence and driving across the airport in two vehicles before intercepting a Brinks armoured CVIT van as it was transferring diamonds to a Helvetic Airways plane bound for Zurich, Switzerland.
“The operation at the airport has taken exactly three minutes so this was a very quick, hit-and-run, very well organised. There has been no shooting, there were no injuries,” said an airport spokesman.
Passengers who were on the plane at the time saw nothing.
Airport security concerns
It is said to be the biggest diamond theft in recent years , resulting in the loss of an estimated 37m euros (£32m, $US50m) worth of gems. Antwerp is the world’s prime diamond trading hub: eight in ten of all rough and half of all polished diamonds are traded there, according to the Antwerp World Diamond Centre.
Centre spokesperson Caroline De Wolf said the diamond industry is concerned about airport security.
“The Antwerp diamond community is shocked by the brutal heist of late last night. Armed robbers took off with around US$ 50 million worth in diamonds, both rough and polished stones,” she said.
“To date, Antwerp is the most highly secured diamond centre in the entire global industry, guaranteeing a safe business environment and safe transport of the vast stream of valuable goods to and from Antwerp.
“We find it hard to understand how a robbery such as yesterday’s heist could take place,” De Wolf said. “We choose to transport goods via airplane, precisely because of the safe and controlled nature of this means of transportation. We do hope additional airport security measures can be put in place in order to safeguard a fluent and safe transport of diamonds.”
And she added, “We are currently awaiting the results of the investigation but we do fear the damage for Antwerp, the world’s leading trade centre, is significant.”
The airport spokesman told the BBC: “There are very strict rules and regulations on airport and aviation security, and we comply to all of those. We are regularly controlled and tested and audited on those and we are a very good airport when it comes to that, we have very good figures on that. But what has happened has happened and now there is an enquiry to see how this could have happened and what could be done to avoid it in the future.”
Security professionals were also left wondering how perimeter security could have failed so spectacularly, given that this is one of the mainstays of any airport security programme.
David Smith, chairman of Elite Protection Ltd which provides security services to high value retail clients, said it was a daring raid which not only highlighted the weaknesses in perimeter security but also airport security planning in general.
He speculated about the amount of knowledge the robbers had before they breached the perimeter security fence. “There is clear inside knowledge as you cannot realistically, by chance, breach a security fence unchallenged and drive straight to the aircraft at the point of transfer from secure vehicle to aircraft,” he said.
“Whilst I acknowledge this [the transfer of valuable cargo from CVIT vehicles] is a reasonably regular event at Brussels, there is not a pattern from which a recce or counter surveillance would assist. The diamonds were vulnerable when on the aircraft as opposed to the secure vehicle,” said Smith, a former police commander who was responsible for seven London boroughs and Heathrow Airport.
“Airport security is focussed on counter terrorism issues and whilst this was an armed robbery, the MO had all the hallmarks of a terrorist attack. Airport police and security services which are armed and empowered have been found wanting in this instance.
“That stated, the speed and efficiency of the attack clearly demonstrate that even the most secure of environments can be breached. I have sympathy for those who planned the transit and transfer as, airside, the risk would have been assessed, taking into account an armed police presence securing the airport. How wrong can you be?
“In future where such transfers are to take place, the risk could be mitigated by securing the perimeter and any other access route. The airport authorities have a duty of care which in this case was sadly lacking. I anticipate that the police investigation is looking carefully for any compromise within the wider remit of airport and security staff.”
Keith Chapman of Navtech Radar Ltd said the raid underscores the weakness of traditional airport security measures. He said it is vitally important that security staff and police have early warning systems, giving them as much time as possible to respond to breaks in the perimeter security.
“Traditional perimeter security solutions with fences, CCTV cameras and sensors no longer keep the really determined people out,” he said, adding that the incident also raises concerns about the airport’s counter terrorism preparations.
“Perimeter security used to demarcate the boundary and secure the assets from theft, ie, deterring someone getting in, stealing something of value and getting out again undetected. However, the intruder threat of today is of an altogether different magnitude. Robbers or terrorists are not concerned about detection. In the case of robbers the objective is to escape without being caught where the objective of terrorists is to cause as much damage and disruption on the inside as possible.
“Once perimeter security is breached, it’s often too late to react,” Chapman said.
Radar-activated CCTV systems provide an early warning system by continuously scanning pre-defined areas for movements of people and vehicles. Based on software-encoded rules, Navtech’s system can identify a suspicious event, such as a vehicle stopping on a perimeter road, and alert an operator. At the same time, it can direct one or more CCTV cameras to zoom in on the suspect incident and give the security operator a picture of what’s happening.
In the case of the Brussels Airport robbery, would a system like this have perhaps provided the airport with vital extra minutes in which to respond to the incident?