Shinzo Abe’s assassination was avoidable — Security expert explains

Shinzo Abe

A day after the brazen assassination of Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a campaign speech on a city street, security at the event — or the lack thereof — is now under the spotlight of scrutiny.

Questions have swirled in security circles over how the suspect was able to get so close to Abe as well as why police officers were not able to jump in and protect Abe during the three seconds between the first and the second gunshots.

Videos of the attack show that at about 11:30 a.m. Friday, the alleged shooter, Tetsuya Yamagami, sneaked up on Abe, who was speaking to the crowd while holding a microphone. Yamagami came within several meters of Abe, and then a loud noise echoed, followed by a plume of white smoke in the air.

Abe turned around in surprise at the first shot. Three seconds later, another shot was heard and the 67-year-old former prime minister fell to the ground.

Videos of the incident were circulated on social media. The videos do not show any police presence near Abe — whether surrounding him as a barrier or rushing to protect him as human shields between shots.

There was an officer who tried to use his bag — apparently bulletproof — as a shield, but he was unable to do so before the second shot.

Security at the event consisted of one Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department officer and officers from the Nara Prefecture police. So what went wrong?

One Tokyo Metropolitan Police executive, who has experience in election campaign security, said the event appeared to lack sufficient preparation. According to Nara police, Abe’s speech was announced Thursday and it wasn’t until Friday just hours before that the security plan was approved by the Nara police chief.

Nara police officers said in a news conference after the shooting that there was “enough time” to prepare, but videos suggest a massive space behind Abe — a blind spot — was left unguarded.

“The problem was the guards allowed a person holding the suspicious object to come in close distance,” the Tokyo police executive said. “The way it should have been, was to check where might be the blind spot around the site of [Abe’s] speech, and to check for places where someone could set up suspicious objects [such as bombs].”

Koichi Ito, a former officer in Tokyo Metropolitan Police’s Special Attack Team, said the response after the first gunshot was the major problem.

The most basic rule for police officers on a bodyguard mission, Ito said, is to force the charge to bring his or her head down, and lead them away from the site whenever the officer senses something is strange. This never happened after the first shot at Abe.

“Even if such actions end up a false alarm, initial response is crucial for any bodyguard. Responses [at the site of Abe shooting] were insufficient,” he said.

Election campaign speeches are often promoted in advance through social media and other means to attract larger crowds. Abe also had publicized his schedule on his official Twitter account. It is also known that there is a possibility that Yamagami was in Okayama on Thursday, the same day and place Abe gave another speech.

In comparison, election campaign speeches in the U.S. are more commonly held in city halls or stadiums, according to Takuma Ohamazaki, an election consultant. It is easier to have tighter security at such sites — such as checking people’s bags as they enter the venue.

“In Japan, electorates tend to go out to street corners to make their speeches in order to play up the sense of closeness with the voters — even more so when the battle escalates,” he said.

The way Japanese politicians carry on campaigns needs to be reassessed, he added.

Tomoaki Onizuka, Nara police chief, said in a news conference held on Saturday that “when seen as a whole, there were problems” in the way security was set up at the Abe shooting site.

Japan’s National Police Agency will verify the procedures and the problems in light of the incident.

“Police should review and verify the incident and explain to the people why they could not avoid the shooting,” Shinichi Ito, who runs a security company, said.