Updated: Sep 5
The killing of a likable former world leader that shocked the world, and why questions should be asked of Shinzo Abe's protective detail.
Without question, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, should still be alive today. He was a well liked leader with few publicly known enemies, but make no mistake, that should not be taken for granted by anybody in today’s world. This was an attack and murder that shocked us all for a number of reasons, and although it was one that was completely unexpected in the method it was carried out, the chances of it occurring always existed, even in a country of little crime such as Japan.
On the morning of July 8, 2022, Abe was campaigning in the southern city of Nara for a parliamentary election — around 300 miles from the capital city Tokyo, when two shots suddenly rang out. Abe was shot and collapsed in the street, and while chaos ensued, members of his security detail quickly identified a lone gunman fleeing the scene and immediately detained him. After four hours of emergency surgery at a local hospital, Abe was pronounced dead at 17:03 local time. The news broke across the world of the attack and Abe’s subsequent death, and an outpouring of shock and grief would soon follow.
The assassination was especially hard to accept because it involved a gun, and gun crime in Japan is almost unheard of due to having some of the most stringent laws on buying and owning firearms. In fact, only one firearm related death occurred throughout the whole of 2021, and since 2017, there have been 14 gun-related deaths, a remarkably low figure for a country of 125 million people. Compare that to the United States, with a population of 329.5 million, the surge in gun violence and firearm purchases rose to record levels in 2020 and 2021, with more than 43 million guns estimated to have been purchased and more than 45,000 fatalities each year. It's an astonishing comparison and even though the figures are significantly lower in Japan, it came as a complete shock that a prominent figure in the country was killed in this manner.
Japan’s firearms law states that guns are not permitted in the country. There are exceptions for guns used in hunting, but the process of getting a license takes a significant amount of time and is known to be an expensive process, so very few people go through the hassle, which is similar to numerous other countries including the United Kingdom. Still, on the rare occasion that someone in Japan purchases a firearm, there are rarely any crimes committed, however the gun used in the assassination of Shinzo Abe wasn't a purchased one, it was homemade.
Most Japanese people almost never encounter guns in day-to-day life even though police officers carry firearms, and until Mr. Abe’s death, Japan had almost no experience with the emotional and political aftermath of gun crime. Political assassinations were a regular feature of Japan’s turbulent politics in the years leading up to World War II, but since then, only a handful of politicians have been murdered — and most without the use of guns. The last killing of a national-level political figure was in 1960, when a 17-year-old extreme nationalist stabbed to death the leader of Japan’s Socialist Party, Inejiro Asanuma.
Tempers are rarely expressed in Japan’s famously calm political arena and generally Police protection at political events is light, while it's common for members of the public to interact with their political leaders, even at a high level. However, dignitary protection does indeed exist and having been around it in person while visiting Japan with some of those I've worked with, I can assure you that The Emperor as well as the Prime Minister, have a substantial amount of protection officers who accompany them everywhere, and it’s been that way for many years because incidents do occur. In fact, in 1960, Shinzo Abe’s grandfather, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, was himself the victim of an assassination attempt when he was stabbed repeatedly in the leg.
You would think then that Shinzo Abe and his team would place a prominent focus on his own personal security. As the former Prime Minister, he will have been afforded a number of protection officers just like former US Presidents receive from the Secret Service, and although the allocation of staff may be of a smaller number with a lesser international public profile, they are still protected full time both at home and when out in the public domain. Should they be attending public events, then one would expect the protection detail to be expanded, though to what extent is an unknown, but still, there will have been event security as well as Police providing additional support during the event which Abe attended. The responsibility for Abe’s personal safety however falls on his protection detail, not those working in an event security capacity who are focused on securing the event itself, or the Police who will have been responsible for access and traffic control.
This political rally would see Abe delivering a speech, and most of us would think that he would have sufficient security coverage during this and other events, especially as he only left office in September 2020, but what exactly is sufficient coverage when you run the risk of being shot? Did the security detail believe he'd be shot? No, I'm sure they didn't because of the low gun crime in Japan as mentioned, but that doesn't mean it couldn't or wouldn't happen, and any protection officer will know that you always have to anticipate and expect all types of attack, and develop contingencies accordingly to deter and counter them. If indeed the threat of being shot was real or even expected, the event wouldn’t have happened and alternate plans will have been made.
One would assume that as a former world leader, Abe will have been protected by a substantial amount of officers on the ground, but the number of those protecting him isn't in question here, this is about how a lone gunman was able to get up close to the former Prime Minister and kill his target. When someone has the intent to kill, they immediately have the upper hand because only they know how they will execute their plan. But, it's important that a protection officer always thinks like an attacker while identifying scenarios to counter the 'what if,' and in Nara, Japan, the protection detail will have expected that anything could happen, and if they didn't then they should have.
Don't for one minute think that protection officers in Japan are laid back or lax in their method of operating as some may lead you to believe, the success of this attack hasn’t helped, but they are known to run their government protective details in a professional and efficient manner. I've been to Japan countless times and have attended low key and major events, both public and private, and I’ve always found those working within protective details to be highly focused on who they were protecting and in how they carried out their method of operating. If anything, when I've been in close proximity of Japanese leaders, I've found the protection details to be following similar protocols to those working with the President of The United States, and I'd hazard a guess they train to a similar style with a high level of excellence required to be in that position.
In the main, whether you're in Japan or India, France or the United States, those tasked with protecting government and world leaders, even former, are highly trained and mostly highly experienced professionals who let very little, if anything, slip by them. There is so much at stake when you're at that level that you don't have a choice other than to conform to the professional standards you're trained to, as well as operating in a manner that your teammates expect you to. If you slack off, let your standards slip, make mistakes, lack focus, and can't handle the pressures of the job, then you're off the detail, it's that simple. There is very little room for error and you not only have to think on your feet, but act on it too, because sometimes situations occur that will truly test you as an operator.
In this line of work, especially when working with high profile principles, you are constantly thinking and making decisions, and those decisions have to be on point every single time. Put a screen here, place a car there, position an agent here, here, and here, take this route, what is the alternate route, drive time, known threats, what are our contingencies, any medical concerns, the list really does go on. There is so much that you are thinking about as a protection officer, even more if you're the detail lead, and it's constant high pressure and lot's of analyzing. The minute you switch off while on the ground you’re simply rolling the dice because anything really can happen when you’re responsible for protecting VIP’s.
One of the best bits of advice I've ever been given was when I was training to be a Close Protection Officer back in 1999, and that was "Keep your head on a swivel, because if it comes then you want to know it's coming, and you stand more chance of reacting and protecting than if it just hits you". Our role is mostly a preventive one rather than a reactive one, but for those who have had to respond to serious incidents or an attack, you'll agree that all the stresses and big decisions you make ahead of your principle arriving, or while they are on the ground, are far easier than if you have to react to an incident that's already taken place. I've done it, numerous times in high risk places such as Bosnia and Iraq, and no matter how good of an operator you are, you can still be hit, and at anytime too.
When the first pictures emerged not long after the attack took place in Nara, Japan, that swivel head advice was what came to my mind as I browsed through what had happened to Shinzo Abe, and I took a particular interest in the positioning of the security detail tasked with protecting the former Prime Minister. As with most in the field of executive/close protection, this is often common practice as we are always learning, but also, we are looking for any weaknesses and gaps that we may identify so as to ensure that we don't follow suit, should there be any incidents like what happened here, and this was as serious as it gets.
As I already mentioned, there is somewhat of a more friendly feel in Japan with allowing members of the public to often be closer to government officials than in other countries. Although this may be a more endearing approach for Japanese leaders, it doesn’t mean the protection detail should follow suit. I’m not saying that was indeed the case here, but the lack of a controlled perimeter was evident at the rear with people coming in close. This is something which happened with now Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, during his Presidential campaign, and is a good example of how you should never get too comfortable with your environment.
On Thursday, September 6, 2018, while campaigning and interacting with supporters on the streets of Juiz de Fora, some 125 miles from Rio De Janeiro, Bolsonaro was stabbed in the abdomen despite being accompanied by a number of security personnel and protection officers from the private sector as well as members of the Police. The initial reports suggested that his wounds were only superficial and he was recovering in hospital, but it soon became apparent that he was in a worse condition as originally reported and the perforation had reached parts of the liver, lung, and intestine, losing a large amount of blood. Despite being surrounded by supporters, a perpetrator was able to get up close and strike his target.
This is a case of having a false sense of security and being comfortable in your environment, but when it comes to protecting VIP’s, you should never find yourself in a relaxed state of mind. Even when you think you know your surroundings, you don’t.
What happened to Jair Bolsonaro could and should have been prevented, and although this is easy to say in hindsight, quite why he was allowed to be surrounded by hundreds of people is yet another questionable matter when it comes to personal security. It can be common for high profile leaders and prospective political candidates to want to be close with the people on the streets, and given that Bolsonaro is a demanding and authoritative individual, he may have gone against the advice of his team and if so, then it backfired and he was lucky to survive. In fact, an attack on Bolsonaro should have been anticipated given his right wing policies, and although he had a lot of supporters, he had a lot of enemies too.
I’ve been up close to him during a visit to his office earlier this year in his role of President of Brazil, and he certainly carries his commanding and General like persona well. To help lower the risk to high profile people especially though, it’s important when you have a principal who has a strong personality, to have protective leads who have the confidence to make them aware of the potential risks, in the hope they listen to your advice and guidance to avoid situations which could be problematic or even life threatening. If you have a principle who doesn’t listen to your warnings and advice, then you need to ask yourself if you want to be working for them, a hard call yes, but it’s one that could protect you and your career, and if you aren’t listened to, then your experience isn’t valued.
This may have been the case with Shinzo Abe in that he wanted to have the freedom to be accessible, but there are differences with each incident both in Japan and Brazil. Firstly, although Bolsonaro was surrounded by hundreds of people who were in close proximity as he walked the streets, to the point of them being able to hug him and shake his hand, Shinzo Abe was standing alone on a podium while giving his speech, and the crowd were mainly to his front and sides. Although it was somewhat of a controlled environment and space was created to offer him a safe zone, it was to his rear where the security lapse was noticeable, and even though this wasn’t a large event with a big crowd, there was a lot of open space allowing the security detail to implement controlled measures.
Although the primary focus may have been to the front and sides where the majority of people were watching, the rear of the podium seemed to be completely open. It’s easy to be focused on one area but you can become distracted by that, and despite having numerous security around him, none were aware of what was going on behind. To me this is unfathomable, gaps were clear for all to see and because they weren’t corrected, it created an opportunity for the attacker to get close and strike.
When you have a principle on a podium or on stage, whether it be in a closed arena or on the street, you should always secure the front, sides, and rear of his or her location, and this is where the perimeter or secure cordon comes into play. This can be created through a very low key approach where the positioning of security personnel isn’t too heavy, and if you have a low volume crowd like here, then you can loosen your perimeter, while if it’s a high number of people then you can close the perimeter in and even increase the personnel to tighten it up. Either way, if you put a controlled perimeter in place then you lock down vulnerable areas and restrict the access and movements of unknown people.
The security perimeter is designed to control who exactly comes into the space of your principle, and whether you require a small number of security personnel or a larger team, it is a system that works and works well when done right. If you’re working solo up to a multi-person security detail, you can use additional assets to help you control who is coming into your cordon, staff members and event personnel would all be willing to help you achieve your goal if you present it appropriately. I’ve done this myself with corporate CEO’s who may be giving a speech, and although their profile may not be high, you still have a job to do and that is to protect them at all times, while controlling your principles space.
While Shinzo Abe was on stage addressing the crowd, it was noticeable that he had two protective officers close by to his left, and one to his right, while numerous others were spread out towards the front and sides. Like Abe, they were mostly focused on the crowd he was addressing, but let me bring you back to the swivel head need in protective operations, you literally need to have eyes in the back of your head because it’s your job to be alert and monitor the ground and area for potential threats or red flags. This isn’t always relating to physical threats either, it could be someone holding up a sign which is designed to get your principles attention, or it could be something that just doesn’t look or feel right to you. Protection officers are not solely protecting from physical harm, they are also protecting their principal from damage to his or her reputation, such as an embarrassing situation occurring.
We’ve seen it happen countless times, so make no mistake, a protection officer takes on a lot of responsibility and it’s not just about watching and looking around or protecting them from an attacker, we need to be constantly identifying gaps and weaknesses in our operation and fill them in as soon as possible to mitigate potential risk. Here in Nara however, this was far more serious than someone holding up a sign expressing their dislike of Shinzo Abe, and as he was passionately pushing for his parties cause, with everyone facing the same way and taking in the crowd, two shots suddenly rang out from only a few feet away to his rear, where a gap had been left allowing a perpetrator to enter and strike.
If I’d have been the detail lead for this event, I would have ensured without fail that a 360 degree perimeter was in place around the podium where Abe was speaking, and the positioning of team members would be sufficient where all arcs were covered. For the two members of the detail who were stood close to Abe, one would have been reverse faced offering a clear view of what was going on behind, and this for me was one of the biggest contributors in Abe being hit as it created an unnecessary opening. If someone had eyes on the rear, he or she would have seen the attacker pulling out the gun from his satchel, while the other detail member would have jumped on Abe and got him into cover.
What happened instead and because all were facing their front, was that tunnel vision kicked in and after the initial shock and time identification to locate the gunman, both detail members turned and focused on the gunman, as did the other detail members positioned in the area. If you watch the video you’ll see a clear view of how this went down as well as the reactions from the team, and you’ll also notice two of the detail members holding up ballistic briefcases to block any additional shots coming in. The first one missed, but the second struck its target, it was very much job done for the attacker. To watch the video, click here.
While working in the private sector over the past 23-years, I’ve grown to appreciate the importance of ensuring you always maintain a protective umbrella around your principle regardless of their profile. Whether they be an artist or a corporate CEO, a world leader or a former one, the risks are real and an attack could come at anytime, you can never be sure of the ‘what’ and ‘when,’ so you need to use your judgement to determine the measures you should take. It’s a fine balance of course, on one hand you don’t want to be too open, while on the other you don’t want to create an overkill of security personnel which your principle may not like, but if the risk is elevated then he or she must understand your decision making. The problem here however is that the security detail didn’t seem to think the risk was high, certainly not for a shooter, but then again why would you when you’re in a relaxed environment? The key is to always anticipate and expect the unexpected, regardless of your environment.
The immediate concern for me with this attack was how the gunman, 41-year old Tetsuya Yamagami, was able to get so close to Japan's former Prime Minister. Given his high profile in the country, one would think that any unknowns wouldn't be able to get so close, even if Japan has a more welcoming approach in allowing members of the public to interact with their political leaders. Despite that though, there were red flags with this particular individual who positioned himself to the rear of Shinzo Abe as he was delivering his speech. Why he was able to get so close to Abe was something I was taken aback by, and although I’m making an assumption having not been on the ground and seeing the security setup, it was a significant security failing that shouldn’t have been allowed.
I decided to do as much research as I could with this and browsed the many pictures that were coming in online to see if I could determine any security perimeters or cordons that may have been in place. As I’ve already highlighted, this is an essential component of ensuring the protective umbrella around the principal especially at public events such as this rally. It doesn’t need to be roped off or barricades put up, and although that is something we may often see here at home, it isn’t laid out that way everywhere else. It is very much dependent on the crowd and environment of where the rally or speech is taking place, but it does offer an extra layer of security and keeps people at a distance, which is important especially if the threat of an attack could occur.
Abe may very well have had a security detail with him, but the gunman was still able to get within a few meters of him without any sort of checks or barrier. How and why was that allowed to happen? Was it so relaxed of an event that anyone could get up close? Not from what I’ve seen especially when you look at the controlled front and sides. Did the security detail switch off and rely on the fact that this was an environment they knew and thought nothing much of in terms of risk? That may very well be the case. You’ll see if you watch the video that behind Abe it was very much business as usual, with cars and people on bikes going by, as well as members of the public walking along not far behind him.
Subsequent reports in Japan highlighted how Abe’s security was flawed which the police acknowledged, and questioned how one of Japan’s most prominent figures, was shot at close range by a gunman who walked past security personnel unobstructed. While many in Japan are asking how this was even possible, so too are people the world over as they come to terms with this attack and taking place. The head of the Nara prefectural police, said that it was “undeniable that there were problems in the security” provided for Mr. Abe. So the question needs to be asked as to why his security detail failed in their job of protecting Shinzo Abe? Was it something that could have been prevented? Of course it could have been prevented, so why wasn’t it and why was there a gap on the ground? The idea is to stop or deter any possibility of your principal being harmed, and from my research on this, the correct measures weren’t implemented.
As I’ve touched on, one thing you should never do as a protection officer is take your environment for granted. I’ve been in low risk places and things have occurred, alternatively I’ve been in high risk locations and nothing has happened, though that hasn’t always been the case. You can’t always operate to the same level, your methods need to be adjusted based on the location and risk, but in Nara, it seems the operation was well staffed given the profile of Shinzo Abe, but it was the operational decision making which is questionable with the positioning of the security detail members, simply put, it was flawed. You may very well lower your profile and even decrease the size of your team, but you must always stick to the basics regardless of where you are or what level of risk is faced, and the basics here weren’t adhered to with unnecessary gaps and a lack of a controlled perimeter.
Shinzo Abe was indeed a high profile individual, in Japan especially, but you can’t work with a high profile person in a low profile capacity, and although the members of his security detail were visible and high in numbers, there are certain aspects at this event which were obviously questionable and should have been corrected to create a controlled zone. Sometimes we need to be close in, often we may need to step back and create space between ourselves and our client, maybe he or she is in front of media and we don’t want to be in the shot, but when you’re in a public setting, you need to switch on, tighten up, and look for any gaps.
Throughout my career I’ve generally worked in a low profile manner as a single operator or in small teams, and although that method of operating has been well received by the principles I’ve been with, it should only be low profile to a certain extent because you need to be able to ramp up at a moments notice, and you need to be prepared for that at anytime. My approach has always been that the higher the profile of the principle, the higher level you operate, and I’ve learned that whether it be through working with A-list celebrities and traveling the world with them, accompanying prominent Fortune 100 CEO’s on business trips, or working with high net worth families on vacation.
If its a high profile or at risk individual giving a public speech, then you must have a controlled perimeter in place, and this wasn’t the case in Japan. Although Abe wasn’t low profile, the setup of his security on the ground was done so in a manner which was to allow members of the public to get close, but only at the rear. Why the front and sides had controlled barriers and the rear was left exposed is anyones guess, but you have to think this to have been a significant contributing factor to a successful attack taking place. I see no reason why it wasn’t locked down to offer all round protection for Shinzo Abe as he was delivering his speech, doing so may well have kept him alive.
The day after Shinzo Abe died, pictures and videos emerged of his coffin being driven through the streets and it was noticeable that members of the security detail were walking alongside the car. I’d assume those who were with him the day before weren’t present, but think about that for moment. One day he is there and the next he’s not, murdered by an attacker who had the intent to kill, it was the job of the protection detail to make sure he wasn’t harmed or hit, and yet now he is dead.
Protection officers are not robots or machines, things are missed and wrong decisions are made, that may be okay sometimes but not most times. Again, the basics should always be implemented and having them in place will help you always, but when you fail to action them then the risk of an incident occurring increases significantly. If you don’t have the assets then you need to request them, and if you don’t have the time then you need to improvise, but here in Japan it was clear that they had the assets, they just failed to utilize those assets correctly and that proved costly. Of course it’s a difficult job and big decisions are required, but it’s one where we must constantly be alert to something happening.
This should be a reminder to us all working within this field that the threats are real, regardless of whether your principle is low profile or high profile, and often you may not even be aware that those threats exist, but you should always expect and plan for them to occur. This doesn’t mean we need to be walking around on high alert every where we go, we must carry calmness and confidence, politeness not arrogance, but importantly, maintaining a level of assertiveness as we get our job done.
The threat could appear at anytime and the better prepared we are, the less chance of an incident impacting our principle, and ultimately that is why we are there, to protect him or her from harm.
Having worked a lot with corporate CEO’s, I’m in an environment where so much has to be aligned for me to do my job. Working with other members of the security department, gathering intelligence, identifying threats, utilizing vendors, managing drivers, working with executive assistants, liaising with event and marketing personnel, coordinating with the aviation team, advancing locations on the agenda, and then of course, working with the principle.
There is so much to take onboard and its constant high pressure and decision making. That’s all part and parcel of the job, and although it can be extremely rewarding, it can be extremely demanding too. Regardless of that though, it’s important to always ensure that your decision making never becomes flawed, because that’s when the operational side could be impacted and at a severe cost.
During the countless operations I’ve been on, both as a team member and leader, I’ve always been learning and watching from others, this has been an essential part of my development as a Close Protection Officer. I’m first and foremost protecting my principle, but having the opportunity to see other operators and teams, as well as engage with them while attending some of the worlds biggest business events, has afforded me the chance to identify a lot of good things that I’ve been able to take onboard myself. With that said though, I’ve also seen some not so good things, whether it be their method of operating or how they act as individuals, laughing and joking or fooling around regardless of their principle being in close proximity or not, but remember that somebody is always watching. Often a protection officer needs to take on the role of three or more people, so how we do our job, how we carry ourselves, and how we lay out each operation ahead of time, really does count while our decision making is key.
There is a fine line with being too laid back and friendly and being too ramped up, and I lean more towards maintaining a serious but personable approach, however some can view that as being too serious. Here’s the deal, the job is an extremely serious one and it should be taken that way. We’ve seen what happened in Japan and its made us all think about how we do our job, we may make adjustments to correct certain things and of course this has certainly got me thinking, but I will always take what I do serious because that threat can come at anytime, and irrelevant of the environment or setting, I not only want to expect it, but react to it as well.
Not everybody fully understands the role and responsibilities that a protection officer takes on, but I always say there is a method to the madness. The processes and systems we put in place are for a reason and that all comes down to protecting our principle, whether through a low key approach or one that’s ramped up due to the environment, an event we are attending, or even the threat landscape. It’s not a job you can play at and it’s certainly not one where many mistakes can be made, you’ll soon be found out and more importantly, you could be placing your principal in a position that you or they can’t get out of.
About the Author: Glen Burton has over 23-years Executive Protection experience as an operator, consultant, and advisor, to distinguished families, Fortune 100 Executives, and members of International Royalty, with whom he has managed and led protective operations in over 130-countries. He specializes in developing and managing low profile protective programs and provides strategic guidance and support across the globe to help protect people, assets, and their reputations.