© ALI HAIDER/epa/Corbis
Back in May, The Washington Post reported that Libyan rebels had obtained funds by “liberating” government assets worth $505 million in the Central Bank of Libya’s Benghazi branch. Ali Tarhouni (pictured), the rebels’ minister of finance, explained the move to foreign journalists: “Let me put this way: We robbed our own bank.” Locksmiths used an industrial drill to open the vault holding Qaddafi’s cash. The straightforward procedure also had a desired publicity effect, highlighting the rebels’ need for funds (possibly drawn from Qaddafi’s frozen foreign assets).
You can’t deny there’s something almost romantic about political bank robberies. And unsurprisingly there is a long (if not always respectable) history of revolutionaries robbing banks to support their causes.
1. Stalin, Man of Steal
Though he would have very likely been a criminal anyway, Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, a.k.a. “Koba,” a.k.a. “Stalin” (man of steel), was one of a number of bank robbers working for the Communist Bolshevik and Menshevik parties during their struggle against Russia’s Czarist monarchy.
Most notably, Koba (whose nom de guerre came from a Russian story about bandits) was the main planner of the famous stagecoach holdup in downtown Tiflis on June 26, 1907, which netted the Bolsheviks the equivalent of $3.4 million in today’s dollars. No one knows whether he took part in the actual execution of the attack, in which his team lobbed grenades at the bank stagecoach and its mounted escort from on top of a nearby building, then opened fire on the guards, killing up to 40 guards and civilians as well as a number of horses, according to contemporary reports.
Stalin’s revolutionary comrade Simon Ter-Petrossian, a.k.a. Kamo, seems to have taken most of the risks and done most of the actual fighting in the Tiflis job (including a grievous bomb-making injury, suffered beforehand, which left him confined to bed for a month) while Stalin calmly smoked a cigarette, according to a police report. In typical fashion, Lenin tried to distance himself from the Tiflis job when the Bolsheviks started getting bad press. Later Trotsky carped that Koba just stood back and let others do all the fighting; of course, criticizing Stalin was never a super idea, as Trotsky would find out when Stalin’s agents killed him with a pickax in Mexico City in 1938. Kamo died in a suspicious motorcycle accident in 1922, leading some to speculate Stalin also had him rubbed out because of his role in the bank robbery.
2. Mao and the Five-Finger Discount of the Proletariat
Another revolutionary who grew up on tales of Robin Hood-like bandits, Mao Zedong emphasized the need for rebels to recruit “bands of brigands and bandits,” if only to prevent the enemy from recruiting the tough guys to their side. If these hardened criminals could be employed to support the revolutionary cause, all the better.
In September 1927, Mao organized an uprising in Hupei that began with a dramatic train robbery capturing a bank money shipment; this feat inspired Japanese Communists to undertake a disastrous 1932 bank robbery that ended in arrests and bad PR. Not to be outdone, in May 1949 Mao’s opponent Chiang Kai-shek joined forces with a notorious gangster named “Big-Eared Du” (Du Yuesheng) to illegally remove (or “steal”) the Nationalist government’s gold from the Bank of China in Shanghai, shortly before fleeing to Taiwan.
Interestingly, Mao himself would unleash another wave of revolutionary bank robberies in mainland China… decades after defeating Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, Mao sought to rebuild his power by stirring up the Red Guards -- young hotheads committed to the total overthrow of Chinese society. Of course one of the best ways of shaking up society is robbing banks, and Red Guard thugs held up dozens of banks in a handful of provinces from 1966 until 1969 (when Mao, ironically presenting himself as the guardian of law and order, told the Red Guards to cut it out).
3. Robbing Banks in the Promised Land
During their struggle to create the Jewish state in the 1930s-1940s, big Zionist groups like the Haganah and Irgun relied on foreign donors and “taxes” levied on the Jews of Palestine for funds. Smaller outfits had to find their own daily bread; one band of Zionist outlaws, the Stern Gang, made ends meet by robbing banks across the British mandate of Palestine. Founded by Avraham Stern in 1940 as the Irgun Tsvai Leumi or “National Military Organization” (later the Lohamei Herut Israel, “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel,” or Lehi for short) the Stern Gang was criticized for terrorist tactics including assassinating a U.N. mediator and a British government minister for the Middle East. So, robbing banks came naturally.
On September 16, 1940, the Stern Gang staged a daring holdup of the British-owned Anglo-Palestine Bank in Tel Aviv, making off with £4,500 (about $275,000 today). However, a second bank robbery targeting an Arab-owned bank in Jerusalem ended in fiasco, leaving two bank robbers and three other Jewish militants dead. Subsequently the gang carried out successful heists at the Bank Pekao and Mercantile Discount Bank. Their biggest success was a heist targeting the Barclays Bank branch in Tel Aviv in 1948. After trying and failing to tunnel into the bank vaults, they decided on the brute force method: on April 28, 1948, forty Stern gunmen surrounded the bank while a smaller group entered and made off with about $38,000 ($340,000 in today’s money). Asked why the “Freedom Fighters” were stealing from the public, a Stern spokesman reasoned “there’s a war on,” and argued that the gang’s dependence on bank robberies at least proved it wasn’t receiving Soviet support, as some critics alleged.
4. The PLO’s Week-long Bank Robbery
One of the biggest bank heists in history was carried out in January 1976 by bitter enemies --Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization in alliance with Lebanon’s Christian Phalange -- plus a whole assortment of shady international criminals. Bank heists bring people together!
The odd-couple team wasn’t the only unusual aspect of the robbery, which targeted the international headquarters of the British Bank of the Middle East in Beirut and proceeded at what might be described as a leisurely pace. Under the command of Ali Hassan Salameh (a.k.a. Abu Hassan, the mastermind of the 1972 Munich Olympics attack) on January 20, 1976, a team of PLO operatives gained access to the bank by blasting out the wall from a neighboring church. The PLO crew wasn’t able to open the bank vaults, but with Lebanon paralyzed by a civil war and local law enforcement outgunned (or on the take), they had plenty of time to arrange a workaround.
Salameh’s gunmen occupied the bank and surrounding streets for two days while his international contacts summoned locksmiths employed by the Corsican mob. On January 24, the Corsicans finally broke into the main vault, and the heist team then spent two whole days loading the loot into trucks, including millions of dollars in Lebanese and foreign currency; a veritable mountain of gold bullion; stock certificates and bearer bonds; and jewelry, rare coins and other valuables from individual safety deposit boxes. The total haul was at least £25 million, equaling an incredible $210 million in today’s money, and possibly twice that much, with the Corsicans getting a third and the PLO keeping the rest.
The Corsicans took their share (one truck load) to the Beirut airport, where they loaded it on to a chartered DC-3 airliner and disappeared back into their mob hideouts. After the Corsicans got out of Beirut safely, the PLO loaded their share (three truck loads) into another plane which conveyed them directly to Geneva, Switzerland -- land of the secret bank account. Most of the stocks and bonds were sold back to their original owners for about a third of their face value, allowing savvy owners to collect the insurance and get their property back. These sales netted the PLO another $50 million-$100 million, which was deposited in secret bank accounts in Switzerland, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece, and West Germany.
5. The Shining Path Takes the Low Path
Founded in 1969 by Abimael Guzman Reynoso, Peru’s Maoist movement, the Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) gained a reputation for unflinching brutality with terrorist attacks in the 1980s: from 1980-2000, Shining Path violence resulted in the deaths of 30,000 Peruvians according to the Peruvian government, not to mention $20 billion in damage, leading Guzman to boast that the Shining Path was fighting “the most economic war on earth.”
With up to 5,000 armed insurgents on the payroll, bank robberies -- sorry, make that “revolutionary expropriations” -- soon became a favorite means of raising funds for their planned revolution in Peru, along with “revolutionary taxes” levied on cocaine traffickers and kidnapping for ransom. In 1981 Shining Path operatives carried out over 50 bank robberies in Lima alone, and the wave of bank robberies continued through the mid-1980s, with 150 robberies across Peru in 1982, as well as international heists in Brazil and Mexico. Although the Shining Path declined following Guzman’s capture in 1993, many of the same tactics (especially bank robberies and taxes on drug dealers) were adopted by other South American terrorist outfits, including Tupac Amaru, which carried out its first major bank heist in Lima in 1982, and the Ecuadoran group AVC, which robbed five banks from 1986-1987.
6. Irish Eyes Aren’t Smiling
Robbing banks may seem like a romantic, victimless crime, but high-profile misdeeds still have a way of generating a lot of bad publicity. The Irish Republic Army found this out following its spectacular heist targeting the Northern Bank headquarters in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on December 20-21, 2004. Some of the bad PR may have been due to the unusually intrusive approach: instead of walking into the bank when it was open, two groups of IRA gunmen kidnapped the bank managers from their homes and held their families hostage at secret locations to ensure their cooperation. With their loved ones in jeopardy, the bank managers went to work the next day as if nothing was out of the ordinary… then stayed on after the close of business to let the team of robbers into the bank that evening. Altogether the robbers made off with currency worth £26.5 million, or about $42 million.
After a public outcry over the cruel method behind the robbery, Sinn Fein (the political arm of the IRA) and the IRA itself both denied responsibility for the bank heist, but Irish and British law enforcement expressed confidence that the IRA was the culprit. The following months saw several million pounds of stolen money recovered, and a number of arrests; however, aside from one conviction for money-laundering, most of the people involved have never been charged with a crime due to lack of evidence.