Criminal gangs armed with explosives are stalking the ATMs of the Netherlands, Belgium and northern Germany each night, hoping to find an unprotected machine to blast open and rob.
Amsterdam has been plagued by gangs targeting ATMs with air compressors for years, but after authorities in the Dutch capital responded by making it harder to rob cash machines in this way, criminals responded in turn by switching to actual explosives to blow them up.
Amsterdam actually regulates that all ATMs must be shut by 11PM each night – pretty early for one of the capitals of European nightlife but required because of the threat.
“There was an initial bomb to break into the building, then another charge set against the ATM,” said a police official without permission to speak to media. “The explosions were huge, knocked windows out of the block and multiple people had to leave their homes for safety reasons.”
Two young men were caught on CCTV fleeing the scene by electric scooter, said the police. But they left empty-handed.
“They used too big a charge on the ATM,” said the official. “Destroyed everything.”
It was the second explosive attack in a week, after bombs struck an ATM in another closed tobacco store in the early hours of the morning, completely destroying the shop and a neighbouring building. Dutch police believe it's the same gang at work. Cops are also hunting a suspect they believe was injured in the first attack.
“They can’t work out the proper charge for the bomb and keep blowing up the fucking money,” said the cop, who wasn’t permitted to speak to the media. “They’ve been unable to adapt from the easier days of using compressed air.”
Attacking ATMs is a serious industry for criminals, with attacks common enough to make finding an ATM in Amsterdam after dark nearly impossible, much to the chagrin of local drug dealers.
“We have to put in the order disclaimer that all bank machines are closed at 2300 but we deliver [via WhatsApp] until midnight because people will order then realise they can’t get any money out,” said one dealer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We tell people take the cash you need at by 1900, because once it gets dark, the machines close because of the stupid gangs.”
The situation is serious enough that Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, recently coordinated an investigation including police from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany to break up a gang based on the Belgian side of the three-way border that would target machines, and escape over international borders just a few hundred meters away.
“The gang preferred the older German machines, which are vulnerable to using air compressors to blow them apart with air pressure,” said the officer. “They’d managed to steal more than €1.6 million [about £1.35 million] this way but the Dutch and Belgians have been faster to upgrade the machines, which require explosives but also are much tricker to save the loot during the blast.”
Years of watching the gang hit a machine and slip into another nearby jurisdiction frustrated the German police to the point where they established a team of 100 officers working with the Dutch and Belgian cops that last month announced more than a dozen arrests.
“Those guys were at least professionals, the last two attacks have been profoundly amateur and I hope they either figure out what they’re doing or get arrested before someone gets seriously hurt. These attacks used volatile homemade explosives but if they were to get their hands on [military grade] semtex this could become an incredibly dangerous situation.”