To this day, the story behind the record-setting, mysterious bank heist that took place in Beirut decades ago still baffles all who study its impossible execution.
The infamous heist of the 1976 British Bank of the Middle East is regarded as one of the biggest bank heists in history, and one of the most intriguing robberies ever, and here’s why.
It was 1976, the atrocious Lebanese Civil War had recently entered its 9th month, and the capital was split into East and West Beirut.
Each side of the combatants was holding one side of the ravaged city, forming a demarcation line, called the Green Line, in between them, stretching from north to south.
Beirut’s financial center lay in the midst of the Green Line, and so did a bank that was worth around $300 million (about $2 billion in today’s terms); the British Bank of the Middle East (BBME).
The unguarded goods caught the attention of a group of robbers, who took advantage of the continuous fighting around the bank’s area to break into it and plunder its precious holdings.
The bank, which was located in Bab Idriss, shared a wall with a Catholic church. The robbers took advantage of this weak point and breached a hole through that wall, gaining quick access into the bank.
The heist was an outright military operation, in which the perpetrators fired 60mm mortar shells at the combatants on both sides to ignite the battlefield and create the perfect distraction for their plan.
Around 4 hours after entering the bank, the eight heavily-armed men successfully created a second hole through the massive, steel-reinforced vault inside the bank, where all the booty was stored.
The group then loaded several vehicles with millions of dollars in stolen cash, jewels, stocks, and hundreds of 99.99%-pure, 12.5 kg gold bars. The robbers took what they took, drove away, and disappeared, seemingly forever.
Until this day, not one of the perpetrators has been caught, and none of the bank’s stolen assets have been recovered. The Beirut BBME heist remains the world’s biggest-ever bank robbery, according to Guinness World Records.
It also remains one of the most controversial and obscure bank heists in the world. This is because the robbers were unidentifiable individually and also anonymous as a group.
Also, not much is really known about its details because of the chaotic period in which it took place. There are several different versions of the story, each of which points fingers at different groups and organizations in Lebanon and abroad.
Evidence points towards the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) being responsible, but there has been no actual trial as this took place early on in the civil war and most public institutions fell apart.
What’s worth pointing out here is the fact that gaining access to that bank’s vault using explosives, without killing the robbers or obliterating the safe and its contents, is not at all as easy as it sounds.
The successful breach that led the group into the bank’s safe was undoubtedly orchestrated and performed by elites who knew their way around both explosive devices and reinforced walls.
This is part of what makes the theory that the British SAS was behind the heist believable.
British Author Damien Lewis investigated this possibility for years, during which he reached out to SAS veterans and gathered some very interesting information about the incident.
Through the investigation, he concluded that the British Special Forces had “the motive, the means, and the track record” to conduct the heist.
Lewis got as close as anyone has gotten to confirming that the heist was conducted by the British military, but, in the end, he could not do so with irrefutable certainty.
There is no consensus even on the sum of the stolen assets.
While most reports state the plunder to be worth $20-$50 million (equivalent to $133-$332 million today), others have exaggerated it to as much as $850 million (over $5 billion in today’s terms).
Nevertheless, the most agreed-upon number is close to $32 million, which equates to around $210 million today.
Whoever did it, and whatever the loot was worth, the heist of Beirut’s British Bank of the Middle East is certainly one of the biggest, most curious, and most successful bank heists in history.