BEIRUT: When two armed men burst into a bank in Shoueifat Tuesday and grabbed an unspecified amount of cash, it sent another shock wave through the country’s security companies.
The businesses are trying to respond to a recent string of violent robberies but are finding few banks willing to accept the extra cost and responsibility of more protection.
It was the eighth bank robbery over the past year and the fifth in the past two months, with signs indicating the robberies were related, as well as growing increasingly violent and sophisticated.
During the robbery of a branch of Federal Bank in the town of Damour in June, the assailants threatened customers and bank employees – four masked gunmen stole an unspecified amount of clash before escaping in a BMW. At the end of June, a shot was fired during the robbery of the Dbayyeh branch of Banque Libano-Française, before two men wearing motorcycle helmets made off with $100,000.
In July, the robberies and gunfire increased in intensity. Two gunmen wearing motorcycle helmets fired randomly as they robbed the Societe Generale de Banque au Liban in Kfar Shima, wounding two people in the leg and stealing around $75,000. The Shoueifat robbery saw the same wanton gunfire; one person was shot in the leg while another was wounded by the resulting flying glass.
A high-ranking Internal Security Forces official attributes the spike in robberies, lately concentrated in Khalde and Shoueifat, to criminals taking advantage of a period of instability that has spread the country’s police thin.
“We are fully doing our job, but we can’t have police personnel in front of each home in Lebanon,” the ISF official said.
Bank officials and security company executives aren’t so sure everything is being done to stop the robberies.
The steady incidence of robberies and mounting casualties have prompted security company executives to make field visits to banks they work with to bolster security measures and reassure bank executives.
Security companies that provide banks with security equipment such as cameras, metal detectors as well as security guards and money-transport protection, are offering banks more sophisticated security plans in response to the robberies.
But several security company executives claim banks are hesitant to adopt the costly security improvements needed to protect themselves from the armed robbers.
Abdo Abi Khalil, the managing director of security company Protectron, said banks need trained armed guards to deter or possibly repel a robbery, but banks are unwilling to shoulder the added cost or try to figure out the legal ambiguities of armed protection.
“Banks in Lebanon do not take any advantage of the armed guard service since the Lebanese law is not precise toward this matter,” Abi Khalil said.
Khalil said the law’s provisions on when non-government employees are allowed to use arms are vague, raising concerns about liability.
Another security company executive emphasized that the lack of armed guards at banks had a financial motive. Banks would rather take their chances with normal levels of bank security and rely on insurance money, he said.
“Any choice of companies of security is chosen depending on cost, not on the quality,” said the executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They never accept the advice of the security company.”
Banks are relying on the protection offered by the ISF, the executive said.
“They don’t take this very seriously,” he said, predicting that the government was unlikely to provide meaningful protection anytime soon.
Francois Bassil, the chairman of Byblos Bank, disagreed with this assessment. He said the bank robberies were not a significant chain of events resulting from a general state of lawlessness in the country.
Bassil said he didn’t see any reason to boost bank spending on private security services, adding that it was unlikely any bank would take additional measures unless the Association of Banks decided to do so.
Instead he demanded better protection from the government.
“It’s up to the government and [ISF] to protect the bank,” he said.
Banks are generally tight-lipped about their security policies, not wanting to give criminals a leg up in beating their security measures. Almost every bank has security systems such as closed circuit television, metal detectors, guards and safes, but measures beyond those standards are kept secret.
“I can assure you that we take the highest security measures to protect our customers; some of the examples are the walk-through machines, the security guards and cameras,” HSBC bank spokeswoman Diala Sobh said.
“What we do in cases of emergency or crisis, or what has been happening recently, if we are taking extra measures or not, obviously this is not something to be shared.” – Additional reporting by Atallah Salim