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Lebanon: The New Wild, Wild East

Bank robberies are firmly back in fashion among the country's gangsters and terrorists.
October 4, 2012, 2:00pm

For a country half the size of Wales, Lebanon cleans up surprisingly well in the world record arena. Granted, it's mostly culinary achievements – the largest platter of falafel, the most gigantic tabbouleh dish and the biggest bowl of hummus ever made, all extremely important victories over neighbouring Israel, obviously – but, perhaps the most impressive, is history's most successful bank robbery.

In January, 1976, less than a year into what was about to be Lebanon's 15-year civil war, a team associated with Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organisation managed to get into the Beirut HQ of the British Bank of the Middle East. Blasting through the walls of the bank's neighouring Catholic church, the crew realised they hadn't quite worked out how to get into the vaults. Clearly just a minor detail in a bank robbery.

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With the country paralysed by civil war, however, the break-in was low on the list of importance for law enforcement, so the gang simply occupied the bank and its surrounding streets for two days, flew in some Corsican locksmiths and spent a further two days loading trucks with gold bullion, cash and jewellery worth up to £35 million ( which would be a hell of a lot more by today's standards).

Moving forward 36 years, and little seems to have changed. This year, Lebanon has seen a spree of armed bank robberies – five alone in the past few months and eight overall in the past year. The general modus operandi seems to involve men with guns and motorcycles entering banks, still wearing their helmets, charming cashiers with their weapons and walking out with huge bundles of cash. I suppose that's a pretty standard approach to robbing a bank, really. Only, so far this year, the gangsters have accumulated over £1.5 million without anyone being prosecuted, which would almost be applaudable if it wasn't for the fact that these men are doing very bad things.

Like most crime in Lebanon, the trail doesn't just lead to criminals, but also to politics. So far, the ISF (International Security Forces) have arrested five men in relation to the robbery surge, with one of them being shot in the process. The remaining four are claimed to be part of a terrorist cell from al-Rmeileh, a nearby neighbourhood, and, sure enough, when the army raided their homes, they found 1,211 detonators, Russian and American mines, Israeli devises that ignite mines, Israeli mortar shells, hand grenades and a load more stuff that has no other real use than killing people in horrible ways.

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Every neighbourhood in the country seems to have an armed unit these days, which means everyone's trying to buy weapons, which, in turn, means the people who sell weapons to the Lebanese have more than doubled their prices on everything from AK-47s to bulletproof vests. It's a great place to be if you make your living through selling tools of war. It's not such a great place to be if you're literally anyone else.

The ISF claim that the alleged robbers confessed to plotting an assassination of two judges and a plan to target military intelligence, while Hezbollah reckon they're Israeli spies. The ISF are predominantly anti-Assad and Hezbollah support the Syrian regime, so it's almost impossible to know who to believe here.

Judging by the history of Lebanese bank robberies, however, one thing is glaringly clear: the wavering veil of state control is looking dangerously precarious, slowly alowing more and more illegal activity to slip through the gaps. Factionalism, sectarianism – whatever you want to call it – everyone knows that it's going to rear its vile, miserable head soon enough, just as it has done a stone's through away in Syria.

Bank robberies are firmly back in fashion, and, just like 35 years ago, neither the state military or the police are going to be in any real position to stop them.

More jolly stories from Lebanon:

Asking a Lebanese Atheist About All this Religious Screaming

Is Lebanon on the Brink of a Civil War?

Salafists in Sidon: Not as Bad as You Think