Like all great heists, the assault on a Saudi prince’s convoy of vans and limos Sunday night just outside Paris looks, in retrospect, like a crime that was waiting to happen.
The French authorities say that between five and eight attackers brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles, a trademark of organized crime in Western Europe, pulled up to the prince’s cars around 9 p.m. along a relatively quiet stretch of highway en route to le Bourget airport, which handles private jets.
The gunmen got into one of the cars, a Mercedes van, dropped off the three occupants a ways down the road, and made off with roughly €250,000 ($334,000) in cash as well as “sensitive documents,” according to police officials quoted in the French press.
The name of the prince has not been released, and it is not clear that he was even with the convoy. “Typically, the princes send their entourage with money, luggage, passports to the airport,” a veteran Saudi intelligence officer told The Daily Beast privately. He declined to give the royal’s name or position, but noted that the title “prince” can sound more politically imposing than it is, and the French headlines describing the collection of cars on their way to the airport as a “diplomatic convoy” may well be misleading.
In fact, in August, when Saudi Arabia’s heat approximates hell on earth, many of the thousands of princes and princesses from the Kingdom come to Paris looking for something like paradise. The wives (some in veils, some in Valentino, some in both), their children, the Filipina and Malaysian nannies, and assorted hangers-on congregate in the five-star hotels and fill the cafés that line the Champs Élysées. The royals typically bring copious amounts of cash, often in €500 notes (worth $668) to facilitate shopping at Vuitton, Hermes, and the many other bastions of luxury in the French capital. And often they demand logistical services from the hard-pressed Saudi embassy, which stretches the term “diplomatic.”
A gang with inside information—and there is not much doubt this gang fit into that category—could easily determine the moment when a Saudi royal wrapping up his Paris sojourn might be sending his entourage and his cash to his private jet.
But the matter of the so-called “sensitive documents” remains. Are they, as the Saudi intelligence veteran suggests, just the passports of the entourage? Or could they be something more serious and sinister? Various Saudi princes, after all, have been major sources of covert funding for operations as diverse as Iran-Contra in the 1980s and, more recently, jihadist operations in Syria. (Ties to the infamous ISIS in Syria and Iraq are less clear.) Some French politicians also have been known to accept the largesse of Arab benefactors. So it’s conceivable, if unlikely, that the sensitive documents are very sensitive indeed.
Shortly after the holdup the burned-out van and a BMW were found along with two €500 bills, some documents in Arabic and various medications, according to a police source quoted in Le Monde.
I asked Alain Bauer, one of France’s most influential criminologists, if the heist appeared to him to be a common organized-crime operation or something with more complicated implications.
His cryptic answer: “Both.”