The Jewish world’s reigning chutzpah champion may have spawned imitators, if rumours of a renewed and audacious scam prove true.
Since 2015, wealthy individuals paid £75 million under-the-radar to release French citizens being held captive by ISIS. They paid was money into a secret government account after speaking to French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian via Skype. The minister asked for their help because France does not negotiate with terrorists, and could not be seen to be paying a ransom.
Except the man wasn’t Jean-Yves Le Drian. It was someone in a silicone mask who was impersonating him. Likewise, the accounts were not government accounts, and the money was not used to pay terrorists to release French citizens.
It was all a con. Even Le Drian’s aides had been impersonated.
Those falling victim to it included the Aga Khan and the owner of Château Margaux wines. It soon became clear that “Friends of France” were being tapped up around the world, including economic and religious leaders.
It only came to light when Senegalese leader Macky Sall, who knew Le Drian well, raised the alarm. He said ‘Le Drian’ addressed him in the formal – ‘vous’ – whereas their friendship meant the real Le Drian always used the informal – ‘tu’.
“Everything about the story is exceptional,” said Delphine Meillet, a lawyer representing Le Drian, who is now the French foreign minister.
“They dared to take on the identity of a serving French minister. Then they called up CEOs and heads of government round the world and asked for vast amounts of money. The nerve of it…”
The man suspected of being behind it is Gilbert Chikli, a French-Israeli citizen of Tunisian Jewish background, but he has been behind bars since his arrest in Ukraine in August 2017, where he said he was going to visit the grave of a rabbi.
Officers found evidence in his phone that he was actually going to purchase another mask, and Chikli was jailed in Kiev. Behind bars, he could not begin the scam again, but earlier this year ‘friends of France’ once again started receiving calls from ‘Le Drian’ asking for help to pay the ransom on French citizens being held hostage.
The plot thickened in February, when three French-Israeli citizens were arrested near Tel Aviv. French police say the calls have now stopped, but Chikli’s modus operandi seems far from caged.