How fraudster who wore silicone mask of French minister stole millions

Franco-Israeli fraudster Gilbert Chikli to go on trial for elaborate hustle of wealthy

The Aga Khan was an obvious target for the Franco-Israeli fraudsters who devised the "fake Le Drian" scam.

By tradition, the world’s Shia Muslim Ismailis gave ancestors of Prince Shah Karim al-Husseini, Aga Khan IV, their weight in gold and diamonds every year. The prince’s fortune is estimated in the low billions of euro.

Now aged 82, the prince was caring for his beloved horses at his estate near Chantilly on March 1st, 2016. An aide said then defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian wanted to speak to him. (Le Drian is now France’s foreign minister.)

The caller told the Aga Khan that French intelligence urgently needed funds to secure the release of hostages in Syria. The ageing prince ordered four transfers to accounts in China, totalling more than €18 million.

Two weeks later, the fraudsters found another gullible victim, Corinne Mentzelopoulos (62), a Greek shipping heiress and owner of the Château Margaux vineyards, whose estimated wealth is €600 million.

The matter was top secret and of greatest urgency, the fake Le Drian told Mentzelopoulos. He asked her to transfer nearly €1 million to an account in Slovakia. The Banque de France would reimburse her, he promised. The "minister" called back two more times, asking for a further €5 million.

Mentzelopoulos grew suspicious.

The “minister” didn’t seem to understand what she was talking about when she noted they had both done hypokhâgne, the prep school for the École normale supérieure. He kept referring to Czechoslovakia, which ceased to exist in 1993. But by the time Mentzelopoulos cancelled the transfers it was too late.

Another victim, a fabulously wealthy Turkish businessman called Inan Kirac, gave €41 million in the belief he was saving the lives of French hostages.

The fake Le Drian contacted more than 150 people in 40 countries, including French business magnates, high-ranking religious officials, African heads of state, bank directors, art dealers and heads of international organisations. Most smelled a rat.

Ali Bongo, the president of Gabon, thought it was strange that his friend Le Drian called him by the formal vous instead of tu. Another target noticed spelling errors in a message on discoloured defence ministry letterhead.

An early potential victim demanded to see the minister, so the gang obtained a silicon mask resembling Le Drian. Thereafter, the “minister” addressed prey via a blurry skype transmission, seated at a desk before a French tricolour and European Union flag.

Seven years

Investigators discovered the IP address on emails sent by the gang was in Israel. And their modus operandi resembled that of the "president sting" used by Gilbert Chikli to extort more than €60 million from big French companies in 2005 and 2006. In 2015, Chikli was sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison for that scam.

Chikli was born in Paris in 1965, the son of an exiled Tunisian Jewish car mechanic. He grew up in the poor Paris neighbourhood of Belleville, and committed his first offence, the sale of a car he did not own, at the age of 13.

After several convictions for petty theft, Chikli found his vocation for digital crime in the early 2000s. He set up Mondial Négoce, a platform that purported to connect French businesses with “international buyers,” for a fee of €6,000.

Chikli fled to Israel, with French authorities at his heels. He obtained Israeli nationality, because the Jewish state usually refuses to extradite its citizens.

Olivier Bouchara and Hugo Wintrebert published an eight-page investigation of Chikli's chequered career in the October issue of Vanity Fair magazine. When they interviewed "le beau Gilbert" on his yacht and in his villa in Ashdod, near Tel Aviv, five years ago, the journalists found him to be "a compulsive gambler, hooked on adrenaline, high on himself".

The French eventually managed to extradite Chikli by tenuously linking his case to the fight against terrorism. He was released from a French prison pending trial, and again decamped to Israel.

In 2015, then president François Hollande's partner, the actor Julie Gayet, played the role of Chikli's wife in a feature film titled I'm Counting on You. To the Élysée's consternation, Chikli frequented the film set in Israel. Three months later, he started the fake Le Drian scam.

In August 2017, Chikli and an associate were arrested and imprisoned in Ukraine, then extradited to France, where they are still in prison. They had researched the purchase of silicone masks of well-known figures, including Prince Albert of Monaco, who police suspect they intended to impersonate next.

The real Jean-Yves Le Drian and four of his aides have filed a lawsuit against Chikli. Their lawyer, Delphine Meillet, believes there were far more victims than the approximately 15 who pressed charges.

“Many others probably didn’t want to sue, because they were embarrassed and didn’t want the publicity,” she told GQ magazine.

Chikli’s trial is expected to take place early next year.