It was with exasperation that FM noted the October 14th incident at the Nicolau Lobato International Airport, where an unauthorized man rode onto the tarmac and attempted to crash his motorcycle into a Sriwijaya aircraft bound for Denpasar, Bali. FM has long been alarmed by security gaps at the airport: previous investigations have noted lax security and unattended gates; unauthorized civilians permitted to enter restricted areas; x-ray machines either unused or non-functioning; and the disturbing tendency of border officials to fail to detect illegally smuggled drugs. We have also raised concerns about the unclear delineation between secure and insecure zones, both in practice and in Decree Law 2006/06, which is meant to define the airport’s restricted zones.
On the one hand, FM commends the quick work of the airport’s security personnel in apprehending the suspect; FM also agrees with the President of the National Parliament, Arão Noe Amaral, in his statement that there cannot be “only an investigation of the person who entered [the airport], but we must also investigate the security staff who let him in, and from where he entered.” However, this is not enough: there must be a wholesale, expert inquiry into the airport security situation, along with a retraining of security staff in international standards of airport security protocol, as FM recommended in 2016. While the attention now being paid to airport security is a welcome change, the fact that it only happened after a dramatic incident—which endangered the lives and safety of hundreds—renders this victory somewhat pyrrhic.
The psychiatric diagnosis of the man (a 45-year-old farmer from Ermera, and father of twelve) as suffering from acute psychosis, should raise sympathy, rather than condemnation—but the question still stands as to how he was allowed access to the airport tarmac in the first place. Were security guards not at their posts, or did they not ask for identification? Was a gate left unlocked? Was the suspect able to bribe or persuade his way inside, and if so, does this mean that unauthorized personnel within restricted sections of the airport is a common occurrence? The implications of the apparent ease with which the suspect was able to enter the airport with his motorcycle and attempt to drive into a plane full of passengers are grim. If a man, suffering from acute psychosis and acting on impulse was able to enter the airport, how much easier would it be for those with far more malicious, premeditated intentions, with the time and inclination to organize and plan? Beyond the obvious risk of terrorism, these loopholes could also be exploited by traffickers and other criminal organizations.
FM conducted investigations at the airport to see how many of these loopholes still exist in spite of this incident. On the whole, FM is pleased to report that there has been a noticeable uptick in attention paid to security since this incident: there were guards at key entry points around the airport, and the gate by which the motorist entered was being outfitted with a new barrier. FM is pleased to report that its staff were stopped and politely questioned at security checkpoints, in accordance with best practices. However, there were still some major security flaws. There were holes at some points in the fence surrounding the runway, which were not attended. One FM staff member was even able to enter and exit the VIP lounge freely and with no questioning whatsoever, and bags were not searched.
This stood out at the clearest and most disturbing example of the porousness between restricted and unrestricted areas, and of the possible tragic consequences of Decree Law 2006/06’s failure to define the secure areas of the airport. Not only does the VIP lounge lead directly out onto the tarmac, presenting a significant public safety hazard, but it means that domestic and international leaders could easily be targeted. Given the 2008 assassination attempts on Xanana and José Ramos-Horta (and the successful killing of Alfredo Reinado), and this month’s stabbing of Indonesian Security Minister Wiranto, this is far from an idle threat. Then there is the danger of the VIPs themselves: individuals smuggling goods in or out of the country could easily do so for the price of a business class ticket.
Moreover, while security was strong while flights arrived and departed, when the planes were gone the airport was deserted. The guards that FM had seen earlier had disappeared, leaving the perimeter around the airport unattended and unwatched. The doors for the arrivals gate remained open, but without security personnel manning them. Particularly at night, entering and exiting secure areas of the airport would appear to pose little difficulty. Given that this month’s newly heightened security already effectively disappears before, after, and between flights, FM is concerned that the airport will quickly revert to its lax security standards when the memory of this last incident fades.
Added to this, Dili’s airport is not Timor-Leste’s only one. If security can be breached so easily at the international airport, after all, there is cause for concern about security procedures in Oe-cussi and Suai. These concerns are not purely domestic, either: a terrorist or trafficker using Dili as a starting point for crimes committed abroad are not likely to reflect well upon our nation. This could potentially have a devastating economic impact, particularly as Timor-Leste is in the midst of courting ASEAN and various foreign financiers: if Timor is not viewed as secure, then people will be unwilling to come—which ultimately means less investment in the nation and its citizens.
This is not, after all, only a question of a stunt by a motorist chasing an airplane down a runway. Concerning though this is, the gravest security threats at Nicolau Lobato International Airport are far quieter: the continued undetected flow of drugs, arms, and trafficking victims over the border, for instance, that risk turning Timor-Leste into a trafficking hub, or the increasingly pervasive corruption that led to the State Inspector General’s report of widespread fraud by border officers (and which has still not resulted in an investigation). The question of airport security is not one of heavily armed guards, but one of monitoring—for security threats coming from without, to be sure, with personnel watching the perimeter and entrances, but also, just as diligently, for threats from within. The gravest security concern is a culture of impunity at the airport, one in which security is not taken seriously—and ultimately, as this latest incident shows, treating security as trivial ultimately means treating the lives of Timor’s people as trivial.