Abe security detail was rife with fundamental flaws

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An artist illustration: Actions of suspect and police guards

More than three weeks have passed since former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 67, was shot dead.

Abe is the only Japanese politician with prime ministerial experience to be murdered since World War II.

The Yomiuri Shimbun has examined key points regarding the police escort and security activities at the time of the attack, based on interviews with investigation sources and analyses of video clips posted on social media.

Suspect overlooked

With his left fist raised, Abe was speaking animatedly about a House of Councillors election candidate’s personality, enthusing, “He doesn’t consider reasons for not doing something …” when a loud report rent the air. Abe appeared momentarily confused by the sound and stopped speaking. Moving counterclockwise, he turned around to see what was happening, just as a second shot was fired. Abe lost his balance and fell to his knees.

The shooting occurred at 11:31 a.m. on July 8 on a street about 50 meters from the north exit of Kintetsu Yamato-Saidaiji Station in Nara City. Tetsuya Yamagami, the 41-year-old suspect, was arrested on the spot. He was later handed over to prosecutors on suspicion of murder. Yamagami had passed through the station exit around 10 a.m. earlier in the day to reach the site.

The suspect had concealed a homemade gun measuring about 40 centimeters by 20 centimeters in a navy bag slung across his shoulder. Investigators assume that, after arriving, he surveilled the area to assess the surroundings. Around the same time, police officers carried out a preliminary search of the site where the former prime minister was due to give his address, likely looking for suspicious people or dubious items. However, they failed to notice the movements of Yamagami.

‘High risk’ location

At 11:10 a.m., the candidate and his supporters began addressing listeners in an island-like area fenced off from the surrounding roads by guardrails, allowing speakers a 360-degree view of the area.

Listeners at the site could listen to speeches no matter where they were standing. Last month, Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi delivered a speech at the same place.

However, a senior official of the Metropolitan Police Department in charge of VIP security cast doubt on the safety of the location, saying: “At a glance, it’s a high-risk location. I wonder why this spot was chosen.” Such misgivings stem from the fact that while spectators can hear a speaker from any position, the speaker is also open to attack from any direction.

Cars and buses passed behind Abe while he spoke. If a security “wall” had been formed, for example, by parking an election campaign vehicle behind the former prime minister, the risk of an attack could have been lowered. But election campaign cars were unable to park in that spot because the police did not impose traffic restrictions in the area. Even though there were guardrails around Abe, an attacker could potentially have weaponized a vehicle by careening toward Abe at high speed.

Abe arrived at the site at 11:20 a.m., 10 minutes after the start of the campaign addresses. At 11:29 a.m., the ill-fated ex-premier stood on a box-like stump-speech platform and began to laud the candidate.

At that time, four police officers — one dispatched from the MPD and three officers of the Nara prefectural police — were positioned inside the space surrounded by the guardrails. Other police officers tasked with security stood outside the guardrails.

Yamagami, meanwhile, stood on a sidewalk across the road behind Abe. The two were separated by a distance of slightly over 10 meters.

The attacker seemed to listen to Abe for about a minute, before leaving the sidewalk, entering the bus rotary and slowly approaching Abe from the rear. As he drew closer to his target, he removed the gun from his bag, held it with both hands and fired the first shot from a distance of about seven meters. The time was 11:31 a.m.

A senior police official said, “Police officers should have addressed the suspect when he began walking into the road. That they did not is likely because the personnel positioning behind [Abe] was lax.”

Bodyguard duties

The police response after the first shot was insufficient. After firing his weapon, the shooter stepped closer — to within about 5 meters of Abe — and discharged a second shot. There were 2.7 seconds between the initial and follow-up shots.

According to a former senior police official with knowledge of VIP security, it is a fundamental principle that the closest member of the protection team moves to secure the VIP’s safety when something unusual occurs — such as the sound of gunfire — either by using their own body to protect the other person or forcing them to the ground.

Initially, however, none of the four police officers closest to Abe ran toward the former prime minister.

For his part, the MPD bodyguard ran between Abe and Yamagami while holding up a bulletproof bag, but by then, it was too late. The MPD member had been positioned 2 to 3 meters from Abe — but it turned out to be too far.

Some observers have pointed out that the police officers may not have immediately identified the first loud sound as gunfire, as it differed from the “dry” sound of a handgun. But this is no excuse.

The other three officers failed to act in the heat of the moment, and thus did almost nothing until after the second shot was fired.

Too few uniformed police

As to whether the atrocious attack could have been prevented, police-related sources have pointed out an important fact: The number of uniformed police officers on the scene was small.

When a large number of uniformed police officers is deployed to a scene, it is known as “a show of security,” and aims to make potential attackers think that successfully carrying out an attack is not possible, as police officers would intervene.

It has not been disclosed exactly how many uniformed prefectural police officers were dispatched to the site. But in video clips of the shooting, it is difficult to see any uniformed police officers in the area — at least in the area behind Abe.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A map of the Yamato-Saidaiji Station