Threat assessment capability seen as key to casino security

The deadly attack on Resorts World Manila (RWM) last year was a wake-up call for casino resorts in the Philippines and across the wider region, leading to calls to improve security and properly assess the risks facing each jurisdiction.

It was an incident that made headline news around the world. In the early hours of June 2 last year, a lone gunman entered Resorts World Manila (RWM) in the Philippine capital and left 38 dead (including himself) and 54 wounded after he fired shots and set fire to gaming tables. Most of the victims succumbed to smoke inhalation. Islamic State claimed responsibility but the police later confirmed that it was a botched robbery perpetrated by heavily indebted gambler, Jessie Carlos. In the aftermath of the arson last June, PAGCOR suspended the provisional license belonging to Travellers International Hotel Group Inc. (TIHGI) which operates casinos and other gaming facilities under the RWM name. PAGCOR said RWM had to rectify “serious security lapses and deficiencies” which caused not only the loss of lives and damaged properties, but also placed the country’s gaming, tourism and hospitality sectors in “a bad light.”

However, the gaming regulator lifted the ban at the end of June after TIHGI had, among other measures, added more X-ray machines and metal detectors, and doubled the number of guards equipped with firearms. As well as enlisting the services of crisis management and security specialists Blackpanda, the operator says it recruited directly from the Philippine National Police and invited generals to join the team. “We have some of the biggest heads at the table from a security and safety standpoint,” RWM chief operating officer Stephen Reilly said. “We engaged Blackpanda, which is one of the best security firms worldwide. They are still with us and engaged for another year.” There is also an on-going review and improvement of safety and security protocols in case of emergencies, as well as additional safety and security seminars for staff.

Meanwhile, part of the renovation work to the fire-damaged and bullet-riddled property involves the construction of security bunkers in the event of future attacks. “We have had to redefine the industry standards as you can’t settle for just a regular door and dog sniffing the back of cars,” Reilly says. “We have to make it as pleasant as possible for the guest, but you also need to consider that the world is changing fast, therefore we try to do things with the end in mind. We now have security bunkers and a double layer of security around the property. It’s very expensive, but it’s something we must do. PAGCOR reviewed our plans and I believe what you see at the other integrated resorts today is a result of what Travellers presented to PAGCOR.”

PAGCOR said that when the resort’s license was suspended the government was losing an average of P14 million a day, or P434 million a month. Indeed, PAGCOR required all licensed IR’s to submit security and safety protocols for inspection. The fact that Carlos, a 42-year-old Philippine national, slipped past security carrying an assault rifle, a handgun and ammunition vest was obviously a huge concern. Nearby casino resort City of Dreams later informed the media that it had stepped up security, while other casinos were said to be on heightened alert after the attack. Although it wasn’t terror-related, the incident was a stark reminder for the government and casino resorts that nowhere is completely safe and secure. Steve Vickers, CEO of Steve Vickers and Associates, a specialist political and corporate risk consultancy, says there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for protection of casino resorts. “The threat level differs from region to region and country to country,” he explains.

“Some third-world countries that have well-understood insurgent, or armed militant problems, are clearly more exposed. The Philippines has such problems in some parts of the country but the more likely threat comes from the relative ease with which firearms – including automatic weapons – can be acquired. The angry man, disaffected gambler or exposed junket operator, therefore, present an ongoing threat in that country. Conversely, this is absolutely not the case in, for example, Singapore where access to firearms is severely controlled.” Vickers suggests the best defense for casinos is a deep and realistic understanding of any given local situation, implementing contingency measures and acting on real, prevailing threats. However, often the focus is on foiling thefts and preventing cheating on the casino floor. “Some casinos and local governments tend to be very good at protecting the money but not so focused on external threats,” he says.  

The RWM attack bore similarities to the mass shooting in Las Vegas last year in which a gunman killed 58 and left 851 injured at an outdoor music concert by opening fire from the window of his 32nd-floor suite at the Mandalay Bay hotel. There have also been mass-shooting terror attacks at popular resorts and upmarket hotels over the years, including Sousse, Tunisia, in 2015 and the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008 which left 38 and 160 dead respectively. Yet with all the surveillance systems, security personnel, metal detectors and, in some cases X-ray machines and canine support, a casino isn’t what you would automatically class as a soft target for terrorists. “Casinos are not necessarily soft targets as they have a layered security approach and very strong surveillance systems,” says Craig Sheridan, managing director of Sheridan Consulting Group and the security director for Star Entertainment Group.

“Also, most casinos maintain very close relationships with law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Obviously, with large amounts of cash, 24/7 operations and housing large crowds of people, vulnerability certainly does exist.” Indeed, some of the larger operators across the Asia-Pacific region see thousands of patrons entering and exiting their properties every day. And in many casinos, visitors can freely stroll into the lobby without passing through any form of security checks. Sheridan emphasizes the need for a culture where workplace awareness is normal in the daily routine. “Staff and management need to be alert, report what they see and challenge the norm. Management need to lead by example, displaying safety conscious behavior at all times. They need to engage with employees, wear identification and create a relationship of trust which encourages staff to feel safe, valued, protected and a sense of being part of a team.”

Steve Vickers Associates’ annual Asia Risk Assessment, which was published just recently, suggested large casinos in Macau remain vulnerable to terrorist attack despite the former Portuguese colony’s close ties to China, recent efforts to improve readiness, and the general difficulty of obtaining firearms and explosives. Furthermore, Triad Societies’ close links to the gaming sector and the security threats posed by this cannot be ignored. Vickers tells AGB: “In Asia, the hidden threats associated with Triad Societies and their involvement in junkets and gaming, which can lead to unexpected events in casinos, such as thefts and robberies, also needs to also be considered.”

As for the Philippines, it highlighted how the political and security situations in the country “pose significant risks to investors.” Yet what is perhaps most concerning for those tasked with ramping up security and protecting casino resorts in the country is the ease with which the RWM gunman was able to get his hands on powerful weapons. “The Manila attack highlighted the dangers of those locations with easy access to firearms – especially automatic or semiautomatic weapons,” says Vickers. This is an issue that the government needs to urgently address to reduce the chances of similar-style attacks.