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The Most Impenetrable Building in the World

Written by Laura Davies

The Most Impenetrable Building on Earth? No, it’s not Fort Knox or the Pentagon, it’s definitely not the Capitol Building in Washington DC. It’s not even the Svalbard seed vault, built into the ice just 800 miles from the North Pole. No, it’s a fairly normal-looking building in New York, The Federal Reserve Bank. You can take the subway to it, touch it, you can even book a free tour, weirdly. But what you most certainly cannot do is break in, and I’m going to tell you why, before you get any ideas.


The Gold


Before you decide to risk your life be infiltrating what’s essentially a fortress, you should probably know what’s up for grabs. 497,000 gold bars weighing 6,190 tonnes, otherwise known as the world’s largest accumulation of monetary gold. Unfortunately for the US, 98% of it doesn’t belong to them but to the 36 countries that’re choosing to let the Federal Bank babysit their bullion. Of course, we shouldn’t feel too sorry for the US. Official data indicates they own more gold than any other nation, it’s just stored in Fort Knox instead. Unofficially, China might really be the ones sitting on the world’s largest gold hoard, accumulated in secret, but now’s not the time to worry about the implications of that.

Why are so many countries trusting the US with their gold? There’re a few reasons. Firstly, much of it arrived during and after World War II, when countries, particularly in Europe, were looking for a stable location to store their reserves. During the war, to prevent seizure by the Nazis, and after, for fear of Soviet invasion. Many countries took huge risks by sending uninsurable shipments of bullion across the Atlantic to keep their stockpiles safe. After their physical gold was safely locked away, many governments continued to add to their New York hoards by converting their dollars to gold, and stores peaked at 12,000 tons.

Nixon put a stop to this in 1973 by suspending conversion by foreign nations, in what’s now known as the Nixon shock, and there’s been a net withdrawal ever since. But, much of the gold remains because, secondly, it’s really convenient. If one country wants to transfer gold to another, instead of spending millions transporting it across borders, leaving themselves vulnerable to theft, they can pay $1.75 per brick to have it moved from one compartment to another within the reserve.

The last reason New York still holds so much of the gold is inertia. What need is there to remove it when it’s locked up perfectly cosy with all its other shiny friends?

The bars themselves are stored as the trapezoidal bricks we’re used to seeing in films. Before 1986, the US cast them as cuboids, but they chose to switch to the international standard as they were deemed easier to pick up. Within the most well stocked compartments, they’re stacked 3 metres high and form an entire wall of gold.

No two bars are the same. Gold itself is too soft and malleable to be stored in brick form, so traces of silver, platinum, copper, or iron are added to increase its strength. The purity of each bar must therefore be assessed and recorded when they arrive at the vault to prevent anyone swapping out one country’s nice platinum-laced gold for another’s iron mixture. This, along with the casting location and a serial number, is stamped on each bar, making each unique and non-fungible.

What most people who’ve handled a pallet of gold bullion will tell you is that gold is far more impressive in real life than on screen. There’s a reason humans have chosen to use it in place of money for thousands of years. Firstly, it’s incredibly dense. A single gold bar weighs around 12.4kg, that’s the equivalent of two bowling balls or one small goat. Anyone who handles them has to wear magnesium shoe protectors to prevent losing a toe. There are still dents in the solid concrete floor in one corner of the vault where some were dropped. Secondly, they’re so valuable. At $640,000 each, holding one in each hand is, for most, the equivalent of holding a lifetime’s salary. The entire New York Stash is worth over $200 billion. Lastly, it’s shiny, really shiny, and if you build a 10ft high wall of them, it’s really, really shiny.

The Defences


As the US is keeping the equivalent value of the GDP of New Zealand in one place, they’ve but a lot of effort into making sure it’s protected.

The vault itself isn’t in the 14-story building but under it, resting on Manhattan’s bedrock 24 meters below street level. During construction, an entire block of the financial district, minus the Montauk building, whose owners couldn’t agree on a sale price, was excavated. Foundations designed to withstand the enormous weight of both the building and the gold were strengthened with 99 concrete piers extending into the underlying rock, Then the triple-tiered vault system, with 3-meter steel and concrete walls, was lowered into place. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York was built on top of it.

This is probably already sounding pretty impenetrable, but it gets worse. There’s only one way in or out of the vault, and that’s through an ingenious rotating cylinder contraption. The 3 meter thick, 90-ton steel cylinder is held vertically in a 140-ton steel and concrete frame. When closed, the slightly tapered cylinder sinks 2.5 cm into the floor, like a cork in a bottle. This forms an air and watertight seal that would lead to anyone trapped inside suffocating within 72 hours.

To get inside, a series of timed and combination locks must be opened by bank staff. These are under multiple control, so no single person can open the vault on their own. Then 2 wheels need to be manually turned. One to raise the cylinder and the other to rotate it, revealing the passage. This can only be done once per day, however, so make sure it doesn’t shut behind you. Once closed, the cylinder is sealed in place by using 2 levers to insert 4 steel bolts through the frame. The genius of the design is that it’s been in place since the building was constructed between 1919 and 1924, which means it doesn’t rely on any hackable tech, so it’s invulnerable to cyber-attacks.

For anyone who manages to make it into the vault itself, the defences don’t end there. Each compartment has 2 combination locks, a padlock, and an auditor’s seal. So, again, three people, that’s two Federal Gold Staff and one Internal Audit staff member have to be present before you can get your hands on any gold.

Even if you manage to pay off the right 3 people, you’ll still be a long way from a payday. As I mentioned before, gold is heavy. To manually remove the bars, taking them out through the cylinder door and up five floors to street level would be a slow and exhausting process. Much slower than the process of all the armed guards and local police descending on you with machine guns.

Ah yes, I forgot to mention the armed guards. Each member of the security team must periodically prove their skills at the bank’s firing range. The minimum requirement is a marksman’s score, but many are qualified as experts. So, you won’t be facing a stormtrooper-style scattering of bullets. Rather a “down in one” type situation. How will they know you’re there? The whole building is closely monitored in real-time with CCTV, and the vault door is rigged to alert the guardroom any time it’s opened or closed. This alarm also seals all security areas and exits in seconds.

Clearly, a heist involving the vault door is impossible, but if you’ve seen Die Hard with a Vengeance, you might be thinking there’s another way. The gold store isn’t the only thing lurking under the streets of New York. Alongside the cheese caves and subterranean cities of homeless people are disused subways and aqueducts. One of each is reasonably close to the bullion vault.

This was noted by screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh when he was working on the Die Harder sequel. He suggested the gold could be stolen by tunnelling from the subway and removed with dump trucks through the aqueduct. His script had to be submitted to the New York Police Department to read before production, which led to an unexpected call from the FBI. Fortunately, he avoided arrest as he managed to convince them that he wasn’t a terrorist or privy to any secret proprietary knowledge by showing how easy it was to obtain the plans and maps. And any tourist can book a tour of the vault if they want one. He knew his plot was sound when one agent informed him that it was so plausible that they’d have to have a sit down to discuss improvements to the facility that would ensure no one could pull it off in real life.

However, I think they were covered as, in addition to CCTV, the building is monitored with sensors that could pick up vibrations of any would-be tunnels. It would also take the world’s most powerful drill, with a diamond head, two months to make it from the subway station to the vault. Someone in New York would probably notice, right?

The Conspiracy


There are some, however, who think all that effort wouldn’t be worth it anyway as the vault has been empty for a long time. A lack of audits led presidential contender and former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul to believe they’d been stolen, loaned, or spent on something nefarious, and the bars seen on tours or in the rare footage recorded inside the vault are fakes.

The conspiracy gained traction when a story emerged that the Federal bank had refused access to German, Bundesbank agents in both 2007 and 2011. Not allowing them to even view their gold, never mind withdraw it. As more than half of Germany’s gold stocks were held in the bank, people were more than a little freaked out.

In January 2013, Germany announced plans to bring their gold home, and it was transported by plane soon after. The Bundesbank denies the decision was due to reports that the gold was missing and reassured concerned parties that they had been able to view their stock. They were merely bringing it home as part of the country’s plan to house their own bullion from now on.

Despite these reassurances, however, the removal of the gold did nothing but heighten Paul’s concerns that the Federal Reserve was empty. So the first-ever audit was undertaken in 2012. Auditors conducted 347 tests by drilling tiny holes into the centres of the bars and testing for purity. Everything was found to be in order, but the vault is now 283g lighter than it was before. Technically, the only physical removal of gold by non-owners since the vault was installed, since no one has ever attempted to break in and steal anything, unsurprisingly.

The Bomb


There was, however, one attack on the Federal Reserve, but the goal wasn’t gold, but fear. In 2012, 21-year-old Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis travelled from Bangladesh to the US and began seeking out al-Qaida contacts with the hope of committing an act of terrorism. Fortunately, his search led him, not to any fellow terrorists, but to an undercover FBI agent. He allegedly shared his desire to blow up the Federal Reserve, and the FBI agent offered to supply the explosives, 1000 lbs of ANFO (ammonium nitrate fuel oil). Nafis chose to supply the detonator.

After building, what he thought was a bomb, he parked his van outside the bank and attempted to detonate it from a nearby hotel. Of course, the FBI agent hadn’t supplied real explosives and Nafis was arrested while struggling to trigger the explosion that would’ve destroyed the building and killed hundreds.

The Heist

By now, you’ve probably written off a successful heist of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York as impossible. Unfortunately, it’s just not the case. In 2016, a collection of North Korean hackers, known as the Lazarus group, managed to steal $81 million from Bangladesh’s account without digging, drilling, or cutting through steel.

In January 2015, Bangladesh Bank received a pretty normal-looking email from a job seeker called Rasel Ahlem, with a link to download his CV. Someone in the bank fell for it and infected their computer with a virus that allowed the Lazarus group access to their systems, and eventually the digital vaults that contained almost $1bn.

They planned the attack carefully and patiently. First setting up fake accounts in the Philippines to receive the money and secondly, waiting for the perfect day. They chose February the 8th, the first day of the Lunar New Year, a national holiday in the Philippines, and a Thursday night, the beginning of the weekend for Bangladesh Bank but not for New York. This gave them a full 5-day window to transfer, withdraw, and launder the money before they’d be discovered.

Fortunately for Bangladesh, the hackers caught a few unlucky breaks. Of all the branches to receive the funds, they picked the Philippines’ RCBC Bank on Jupiter Street. Jupiter also happened to be the name of a sanctioned Iranian shipping vessel, which raised red flags in the automated systems, delaying the payments. Almost all were stopped, but $101 million made it through.

The next mistake was a simple typo. The hackers had set up a Sri Lankan charity, the Shalika Foundation, as a conduit for the money. I guess someone was having a bad day as they spelt it ‘Fundation’ on the transfer request and a bank employee spotted it and reversed the transactions.

The remaining $81 million made it through and the hackers were quick to withdraw it and began laundering it as fast as they could. Much of it was washed at Solaire, a casino in Manila offering baccarat. A game that allows a good player to hold on to roughly 90% of their stake, and 90% of $81 million is not too bad. One laundering organiser, however, was caught, along with $16 million, but the remaining money has never been recovered.

How did a country like North Korea pull off the only ever heist of the Federal Bank? Unsettlingly, they’ve been training an army of super hackers by identifying young boys with a talent for maths and sending them to China for training. These hackers have been responsible for not only the Bangladesh theft but also the Sony hack, which leaked executives’ salaries and confidential emails, and the WannaCry ransomware outbreak, which scrambled victims’ files and charged them in Bitcoin for data retrieval. While they may have missed their big payday, adding up all the cryptocurrency attacks likely to have been committed by North Korea brings the total to $2 billion. Double the amount attempted in the Federal Reserve heist. North Korea denies the allegations, obviously.

By Laura Davies



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