The Tokyo Job: Inside Carlos Ghosn’s Escape to Beirut

An elite espionage team spirited the former CEO out of Japan by studying hotel layouts and airport security.  

The Tokyo Job: Inside Carlos Ghosn’s Escape to Beirut
Illustration: Woshibai for Bloomberg Businessweek.

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Sometime last fall, a security contractor based in Asia took a call that he found curious. The man on the other end of the line, a longtime acquaintance and, like him, an expert in protecting VIPs and valuable cargoes in challenging environments, was looking to hire for a job in Japan. He offered few specifics. The assignment would involve escorting someone out of the country, he said. It would pay well. And he was looking for operatives with military or police experience and, ideally, fair-skinned East Asian faces—the kind that wouldn’t stand out in Tokyo.

The contractor wanted to know more. Who would the operatives be protecting? What was the specific threat? Would the client be carrying cash or gold or something else of value? The caller wouldn’t say. The contractor was noncommittal but said he would get in touch if anyone else came to mind. They hung up, and the contractor didn’t really think about the job again—until he and the rest of the world saw the news about Carlos Ghosn.

Just before New Year’s, Ghosn, the ousted leader of Nissan Motor Co. and Renault SA, completed a daring escape from Tokyo, where he was facing criminal charges that could have put him in prison for more than a decade. Despite being under intense surveillance while out on bail, with a camera trained on his front door and undercover agents tailing him when he left his house, Ghosn somehow made it to Lebanon, where he lived for most of his adolescence and is a citizen.

For Ghosn, who’d spent more than 100 days in solitary confinement in a Tokyo jail and was contemplating trial in a country where prosecutors virtually never lose, it was a stunning coup. Lebanon has a policy against extraditing its citizens, and as one of the most successful member of the country’s diaspora, he’s a national hero, with friends who include some of the biggest names in local business and politics. His face is on a postage stamp. Safely in Beirut, he could finally attempt to rebut the allegations against him, which he argues were the result of a conspiracy between nationalist factions, both within Nissan and the Japanese government, that were determined to take him out of play. And, most important for someone who spent the better part of two decades building and cultivating his public image, he could set to work restoring his reputation as a great man of business, maybe even preparing a comeback.

The Tokyo Job: Inside Carlos Ghosn’s Escape to Beirut

A few weeks after Ghosn’s escape, it’s not at all clear that he’ll be successful. While he is, for the foreseeable future, beyond the reach of Japanese law enforcement, his legal problems are nowhere near being resolved. Ghosn is still under investigation in France, where Renault is based, while the government of Japan has issued a so-called Red Notice in his name through Interpol, exposing him to possible arrest the moment he enters a country less hospitable than Lebanon. Japanese prosecutors have also obtained an arrest warrant for his wife, Carole, claiming she gave false testimony in their investigation. And the task of restoring his stature as one of the leading lights of global capitalism is enormous. Even some of his closest former colleagues remain unsure what to make of the allegations against him. It’s hard to imagine major corporations, banks, or investors agreeing to work alongside a man who’s officially a fugitive.

Gathered with his family in the country of his youth, Ghosn has undoubtedly upgraded his personal circumstances. What remains to be seen, though, is whether he’s simply traded one form of confinement for another.

The Tokyo Job: Inside Carlos Ghosn’s Escape to Beirut

While out on bail, Ghosn spent much of his time at his lawyers’ office in central Tokyo, in an anonymous mid-rise building near the Imperial Palace. Forbidden under the terms of his release from accessing the internet anywhere else, he’d been given the use of a cramped meeting room with a bare table, whiteboard, and a laptop. It was also the sole location where Ghosn was allowed to call Carole, and even then only with the approval of a Tokyo judge. From April, when he had last seen her, to the end of the year, he received this permission twice: once in November, and again, for one hour, on Christmas Eve.

Being unable to see his wife was the hardest part of his ordeal, Ghosn would say later, an absence that “put me on my knees.” His mood only darkened on Christmas Day, after a pretrial hearing during which he learned that prosecutors wanted to delay the second of his two trials until 2021. In all, his lawyers told him, it might take five years to fully resolve his cases.

Ghosn was indicted four times, all for financial misconduct. The first two charges accuse him of underreporting his compensation in official filings, leaving out tens of millions of dollars that investigators say he intended eventually to get. In the third and fourth indictments, for breach of trust, prosecutors accused him of improperly benefiting from Nissan’s relationships with partners in the Arab world, and in one case of diverting $5 million of company money to his own ends via a car dealer group in Oman. Ghosn has denied wrongdoing, arguing that the compensation prosecutors claim was misreported was only hypothetical, and that he never misused Nissan funds. (He also settled a civil complaint from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which claimed he failed to adequately disclose his compensation, agreeing to a $1 million penalty without admitting the agency’s allegations.)

Most criminal defendants, in Japan or elsewhere, don’t have the option to simply exit their proceedings if they believe they can’t win. Ghosn—with ample financial resources and passports from Lebanon, France, and Brazil—did. For months, a team of more than a dozen security operatives, led by a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran, had been designing a plan to get him to Lebanon, the country where Ghosn has the most extensive connections. The secrecy was intense: Some of the participants, according to a person familiar with the operation, didn’t know the identity of the person they were going to extract, even after they’d accepted the job.

The team’s leader had a career that couldn’t have been more different from Ghosn’s. Born in Staten Island, N.Y., Michael Taylor joined the U.S. Army after high school and was accepted into the Green Berets, accumulating skills that included HALO jumps: the delicate art of leaping from a plane at 30,000 feet or more and free-falling as long as possible before opening the parachute. He was deployed to Lebanon during the country’s brutal, 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, and there met his future wife, Lamia—like Ghosn, a member of the country’s Maronite Christian minority. After leaving the Army, Taylor put his abilities to work in the private sector, setting up a Boston-area company, American International Security Corp., that protected executives in dangerous places, prepared vulnerability assessments for critical infrastructure, and even planned operations to rescue kidnap victims. He also collaborated with agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, on one occasion working undercover to investigate Lebanese drug traffickers, and developed a relationship with Duane Clarridge, a legendary CIA officer who oversaw a private espionage network in his retirement.

Taylor, 59, also had a habit of operating in gray areas. In the 1990s he was indicted in Massachusetts for charges including illegal wiretapping and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor offenses. Later, the New York Times reported that he was connected to an “off-the-books” espionage network in Afghanistan, which was operating in apparent defiance of military rules against using private contractors as spies. (Taylor wasn’t accused of wrongdoing.) And in 2012 federal prosecutors charged him with bribing an Army officer to win $54 million in contracts and conspiring with an FBI agent in an attempt to kill an investigation into the matter. Taylor pleaded guilty to wire fraud and violating federal procurement law and was sentenced to two years in prison. AISC’s business collapsed.

The Tokyo Job: Inside Carlos Ghosn’s Escape to Beirut

It’s not clear how Taylor was connected to Ghosn, although Lebanon is small enough that there would be only a couple of degrees of separation between their extended families. Even for Taylor, getting the executive out of Japan would be an extreme assignment. After almost 20 years at the top of one of Japan’s largest companies, Ghosn was perhaps the best-known foreigner in Tokyo, hardly someone who could slip onto an airplane or ship without being noticed. And he wasn’t a hostage of a militant group or an abducted child; he was a criminal defendant, under prosecution by the government of a bedrock U.S. ally. Taylor and everyone he hired might face charges if their identities were discovered, at the very least restricting their future travel and employment, and at worst landing them in prison. The security contractor who was approached about an operation in Japan said he would never accept an assignment as perilous as the Ghosn job; those who might, he said, would need extremely generous compensation for the risks involved, perhaps pushing the total cost to $15 million or more.

Yet according to the person familiar with the operation, Taylor was eager to help, and not only because of the potential payoff. Despite their drastically different backgrounds, Taylor sympathized with Ghosn, the person said. Taylor had been denied bail in the runup to his own trial, confined to Utah jails half a country away from his home in Massachusetts. In Ghosn he saw someone in a similar situation, a man he felt had been treated unfairly. Whether Ghosn was guilty seemed beside the point.

On the ground in Japan, Taylor would be assisted by an old friend from Lebanon, George-Antoine Zayek. A gemologist by training, Zayek had joined a Christian militia during the civil war, sustaining a severe leg wound during the fighting. Doctors in Beirut wanted to amputate; instead, Taylor helped arrange for more sophisticated treatment in Boston. Zayek kept his leg, but acquired a limp—and a lifelong loyalty to Taylor. He became a U.S. citizen and was involved with Taylor’s companies in the 1990s, later working for him in Iraq. Taylor declined to comment on Ghosn’s escape; Zayek could not be reached for comment.

The final phase of the Ghosn operation began just before Christmas. On Dec. 24 a company called Al Nitaq Al Akhdhar was billed $175,000 by MNG Jet, a Turkish aviation group, for chartering a Bombardier Global Express jet, which has a range of more than 11,000 kilometers (6,835 miles). If anyone from MNG had tried to visit this client, they would have found it difficult: There’s no company called Al Nitaq Al Akhdhar at the Dubai address it provided on the charter paperwork. Around the same time, MNG has said, a different client arranged to hire another plane, a shorter-range Bombardier, to fly from Istanbul to Beirut.

On the morning of Sunday, Dec. 29, Taylor and Zayek landed at Kansai International Airport, near Osaka, on the chartered Global Express. On board were also two pilots and, according to people familiar with the flight who asked not to be identified, a couple of large black cases of the kind concert roadies use to hold audio gear. Later the same day, according to surveillance camera footage reported on by Japanese media, Ghosn left his residence, a rented house in the busy Roppongi neighborhood. He wore a hat and a surgical-style mask. (Used to protect against germs, these aren’t unusual in Japan.) Taylor’s advance team had chosen Ghosn’s next destination carefully. During the months its members spent observing the plainclothes agents following Ghosn around Tokyo, they’d noticed something, according to the person familiar with the operation. For some reason, the Japanese operatives typically didn’t follow their target when he entered a hotel.

Ghosn soon arrived at the nearby Grand Hyatt Tokyo, which is attached to Roppongi Hills, a giant mall and office complex with a confusing array of entrances and exits on different floors. From there, according to Japanese media, he made his way to Shinagawa station, a major rail hub, and onto a high-speed train to Osaka. Ghosn’s presence on public transport wouldn’t, in itself, have been suspicious. Under the terms of his bail he was permitted to travel domestically, and he’d previously visited Kyoto, which is on the same bullet-train line, with one of his daughters.

Like everything else about Ghosn’s escape, the means of departure from Japan had been chosen with utmost care, with Taylor’s team evaluating a wide range of scenarios. Using a fake passport to get Ghosn onto a private jet as a passenger was a gamble: Japanese entry stamps contain QR codes, which if scanned would quickly reveal the subterfuge. Another option, spiriting Ghosn onto a cargo vessel that would be purchased for the operation, was eventually rejected as too complicated.

As part of their reconnaissance, Taylor’s people had surveyed airports all over the country, looking for terminals where security was lax. A few months ago, the person familiar with the operation said, the team observed that the X-ray machines in Kansai’s private terminal were much too small to scan a large box—and oversize items were simply waved through. The routine was the same on the night of Dec. 29. Airport officials didn’t examine the large black cases that Taylor and Zayek had with them, and they were loaded onto the Bombardier without incident. The plane was bound for Istanbul; filing a flight plan listing Lebanon as the destination would have raised too many red flags, according to a person familiar with the subsequent investigation. A little after 11 p.m., the jet was in the air.

It landed at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport about 12 hours later. An MNG operations manager named Okan Kosemen, who’d helped arrange the charter, was waiting to greet it. In subsequent statements to a Turkish judge, Kosemen recounted that when he came on board, two Americans—presumably Taylor and Zayek—led him to the rear of the cabin. There, waiting in the bathroom cubicle, was Ghosn. Kosemen waited for the crew to leave, shooed away a technician who wanted to work on the aircraft, and bundled Ghosn into a Ford van to take him to the second plane and to Lebanon. (Kosemen says he didn’t know he was aiding a fugitive when he arranged the charter and that one of the people involved threatened to harm his family if he didn’t cooperate. MNG also said it had no knowledge Ghosn would be on the flights.)

Ghosn’s passports had been taken as a condition of his bail—with one exception. He had two French passports, a privilege granted to citizens with particularly demanding travel schedules. He’d received permission to keep the second one; Japanese law requires foreigners to carry their identity documents at all times. The caveat was that it had to be kept in a plastic case, sealed with a lock to which only his lawyers had the combination. But Ghosn got it open and later presented it to an inspector at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport like any other traveler. It was the first legal act he’d performed since leaving Japan.