The Beauty Queen and the Bank Heist Hidden City: Beirut

January 20th, 1976. A group of heavily-armed men enter the 19th Century St. Louis Capuchin Cathedral on Wadi Abou Jmil Street in central Beirut and make their way into the basement.

They stop in front of a north-facing wall and begin to lay explosives. Shortly after, a large detonation takes place. In ordinary times, the blast would have brought people running. But these are not normal times. Lebanon is at war with itself and this once busy part of central Beirut is now uninhabited; home only to snipers, militiamen and, for a few hours each day, the employees of Bank Street, which has been allowed to stay open because even militias need somewhere to keep their money.

The Cathedral after the War.

While many religious buildings did suffer during Lebanon's civil war, unlike the war of extermination and erasure currently being waged by groups like the IS in Syria and Iraq, efforts were made here not to target them deliberately and the entrance of militiamen into St. Louis that January day does not presage some sectarian hate crime. They have chosen the cathedral because it shares a wall with their actual target, the vault of the British Bank of the Middle East, which then stood on the adjacent street that is known today as Abdul Hamid Karame Street.

The Bank's scorched facade, after the raid.

The raid is unhurried. The militia in question is in control of this part of the city and so, they are able to take their time. There is, after all, a lot here to carry away. But first, they have to get into the vault. And doing that will take more than explosives.

This is why several days after the detonation, a team of Corsican or possibly Sicilian, safecrackers arrive in Beirut. They are under contract to break into the vault and they have been promised a third of the take as payment.

It takes them two days to crack the main vault, which had widely been advertised as absolutely uncrackable and for a further two days, the gang assiduously empties it, bank box by bank box. They remove gold bullion, stocks, bonds, suitcases full of jewellery and cash and apparently, secret British government documents detailing the financial sources of the various Lebanese militia and Arab liberation movements then busily ripping Beirut to shreds. The haul is massive, an estimated £25 million at the time.

As bangs go, the BBME's was big.

Admittedly, that might not sound like much in an age when personal wealth is measured in billions but translated into contemporary terms, it’s a staggering sum, the equivalent of £160 million. That's $243 million dollars. Pre-Brexit, anyway. At the time, the looting of the BBME was the biggest bank heist in history and even today, it still ranks in the top three.

So far, so simple. But it is here that in classic Levantine style, the waters muddy.

In early 1976, Lebanon was in the first round of a civil war that would eventually last 15 years. Initially, the warmostly pitted the Phalangists and their supporters (mostly Christian and Right-wing) against the Palestinians and their supporters (mostly Muslim and Left-wing).

Opening Salvoes. The Battle of the Hotels hots up as the civil war starts to get serious in October 1975.

Because central Beirut was the main battleground at the time - the souks had been burned to the ground a month or so before the heist and the Battle of the Hotels, during which the Holiday Inn famously burned, was still raging - no one knows for sure who robbed the BBME.

Most accounts attribute the heist to Force 17, a special operations commando unit that was part of the PLO but (and this is why the story gets murky), the area of the city centre where the BBME stood was mostly under the control of the Phalangists at the time. So if the robbery was conducted by the Palestinians, with whom the Phalangists were at war, the relaxed pace at which it unfolded suggests that at the very least, some kind of deal was struck between the two sides.

Alternative versions attribute the heist entirely to the Phalangists or to a joint operation between the two warring sides, which cooperated because neither firmly controlled the territory in which the BBME was located and both wanted the money. A final theory is that the raid was staged by the British Government, which did not want either the money (claimed in this version of the raid to be the equivalent of not $243 million but $800 million dollars) or the sensitive documents, falling into the wrong hands and so sent the SAS, a special unit of the British armed forces, to Beirut from Cyprus via the port, which was held at the time by the Phalangists.

Money for Nothing. In addition to the pointless deaths and fragmentation of Lebanese society, the civil war almost completely erased the historic heart of Beirut.

Whichever party was responsible, nothing has ever been recovered. The jewellery was likely quickly disposed of on the Black Market. The stocks and bonds, which were worthless in the wrong hands, were gradually sold back to their original owners by the PLO, which is why Force 17 are the most likely suspects behind the heist. If you are wondering why victims would agree to buy their own stolen property back, the answer is simple: expediency. Beirut's strict banking secrecy laws not only made it the financial capital of the Arab World, it also made it an easy place to stash ill-gotten gains. Thanks to its supposedly 'uncrackable' safe, many of the deposit boxes at the BBME belonged to prominent Arab figures, including politicians, who would be hard-pressed to explain their contents should knowledge of them ever become public.

Pre-war central Beirut. Bank Street is on the left. The Capitole Cinema was a favourite gathering spot for the Leftist demonstrations that rocked the city in the early 70's.

The haul was driven away in trucks. Part of the cash and gold left immediately on a privately charted plane that took the safecrackers home. The remainder left a couple of weeks later on a charted flight to Geneva, where it was secreted away in numbered bank accounts.

But what about that beauty queen, I hear you ask. Read on.

We'll assume that it was indeed Force 17 that carried out the raid. The unit's founder and leader was Ali Hassan Salemeh, a flamboyant fighter from a prominent Palestinian family, who was known variously as Abu Hassan and (more glamorously) as the Red Prince, for his taste for the high life.

A gold chain AND a satin shirt? The Prince wasn't afraid of a little 70's glam.

It was this - and of course his charm, good looks and the glamour Salameh exuded as a 70's left-wing freedom fighter - that brings the beauty queen into the story. You see at the time of the raid, our Red Prince was seeing Georgina Rizk, the first (and so far only ) Lebanese contestant to hold the title of Miss Universe.

Miss Georgina owning her crown in Miami Beach, 1971.

The unlikely pairing of a Miss Universe with a Mr. Fedayi (and one who, less glamorously, was also involved in Black September, the Palestinian group that carried out the Munich Olympic attacks) made the couple a notorious item right up until Salameh was assassinated in Verdun in 1979 by Mossad but it does kind of make you wonder if, back in early 1976, Miss Universe at least got to try on some of the jewellery....

All's Fair in Love and War? Salameh shakes hands with Pierre Gemayel as Bachir Gemayel (with whom he was technically at war), looks on. Perhaps a deal over the BBME isn't so far-fetched, after all?

Story: Warren Singh-Bartlett

Photos: Google Images

Created By
Warren Singh-Bartlett
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