When the Aga Khan took a call from a man claiming to be the French defence minister requesting millions of euros for a top-secret government operation, he quickly agreed.
But the person contacting him was not Jean-Yves Le Drian, now France’s foreign minister. He was a member of a gang that scammed tens of millions of euros from the rich and famous in a case that was heard this week in a Paris courtroom.
The alleged ringleader was Gilbert Chikli, a 54-year-old Franco-Israeli previously convicted of fraud over the notorious “CEO sting” operation targeting companies that was the subject of a 2015 film.
Most of the 150 corporate chief executives, heads of state, ambassadors and religious leaders contacted as part of the new scam between 2015-17 quickly smelt a rat, but enough took the bait to transfer $85m to the fraudsters.
Mr Chikli, charged with multiple counts of organised fraud, impersonation and criminal conspiracy, denied in court this week that he carried out the sting and said he had “never taken drama classes”. But in a covert recording offered by the prosecution, he boasted to a fellow inmate before the trial: “For me, it was the scam of the century.”
Six others are charged over the alleged conspiracy, in which a man claiming to be Mr Le Drian — who in Skype calls wore a rubber mask to impersonate the minister — requested the secret transfer of funds so that Paris could pay an untraceable ransom to free two French hostages held in Syria and fund other secret missions.
Court documents show the three known victims were the Aga Khan, the billionaire leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims, who transferred nearly €20m; Corinne Mentzelopoulos, owner of the Château Margaux wine estate, who sent €5.95m; and Inan Kirac, a Turkish businessman who transferred several million euros. Much of the money has not been recovered.
France’s international reputation also suffered because several foreign leaders, officials and diplomats complained about the approaches from the purported French minister.
“It could have had very grave consequences for diplomatic, political and economic reasons,” said Delphine Meillet, a lawyer representing Mr Le Drian. “France does not pay ransoms, and at the time there really were hostages. It could have caused real problems.”
The case has also exposed the ease with which the fraudsters were able to open and use bank accounts around the world to complete the audacious scam.
After convincing the victims to part with their money through phone calls, emails and on occasion Skype calls from the bogus Mr Le Drian, the alleged fraudsters directed the payments to accounts in China, Poland, Dubai and Slovakia.
The Aga Khan, for example, made five transfers totalling €19.99m in March 2016, two into what appeared to be business accounts in Poland and three to accounts in Shenzhen and Taizhou in China. Three of the transfers were blocked by China, France and Poland, but two of those to China amounting to €7.7m appear to have reached the fraudsters.
None of the three known victims would comment this week, although Mr Kirac, who has investments in France and was awarded the Légion d’honneur medal in 2011, told Turkey’s Aksam newspaper last year: “I didn’t suspect anything because it was very well organised.”
Mr Kirac, who reportedly became suspicious of having to transfer the money to a Chinese account, added: “Some time later, I realised. I asked my French friends. I asked the ambassador. They said: ‘Oh dear!’”
The alleged criminals contacted or tried to contact scores of other potential victims, including Ali Bongo, president of Gabon, the French central bank governor and the chief executives of major companies such as LVMH, Danone and Total. Most of those who were approached quickly realised they were being targeted in a scam.
One French executive who received a call from the fake Mr Le Drian realised it was a fraud because he knew the minister personally said the victims were “people who were slightly less familiar with the French system . . . and they were wealthy individuals with limited [corporate] structures around them”.
Mr Chikli, who fled a previous trial in which he was later convicted in absentia, was arrested in Ukraine in 2017 before being extradited to France.
Prosecutors said that another rubber mask was being prepared to mimic the features of Prince Albert II of Monaco, and that the gang had also researched having masks made of President Emmanuel Macron as well as former presidents François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy.
Stéphane Sebag, Mr Chikli’s lawyer, said his client was innocent and that the prosecution was relying on four inconclusive analyses of a series of telephone voice recordings “of very poor quality”.
Additional reporting by Laura Pitel in Ankara