Preventing lone wolf attacks remains urgent task for police

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Investigators check a drone, under a blue tarp, on the roof of the Prime Minister’s Office in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, in April 2015.

The shooting death of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe again sheds light on the difficulties in preventing lone wolf attacks.

The suspect, 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, was formerly a member of the Maritime Self-Defense Force. The police have not confirmed his involvement in any extremist or right-wing group, or any other suspicious organization that the police would have been monitoring.

“He was completely off the radar,” a senior police officer said.

Items police confiscated from Yamagami’s one-room apartment of about 10 square meters included homemade guns and gunpowder, and tools for making these objects.

“I can’t imagine how he prepared so thoroughly at such a high level,” another senior police officer said with surprise.

According to investigators, Yamagami held a grudge against the religious organization his mother has been part of called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, commonly known as the Unification Church.

Yamagami believed Abe had ties with the Unification Church, thus he hatched his plan to kill the former prime minister, according to investigators.

The police said that Yamagami made the gunpowder by mixing components from fertilizers and other materials bought online and learned how to manufacture homemade guns through YouTube videos.

“An individual secretly makes weapons and suddenly commits a crime on a given day while no one is aware of anything,” said Isao Itabashi, the chief of the Institute for Analysis and Studies of the Council for Public Policy who is an expert on antiterrorism measures. “It’s the typical case of a lone wolf.”

Drone incident while Abe was PM

So far, police had sought to prevent acts of terrorism targeting politicians or important facilities by keeping watch on extremists and other potential attackers.

During election campaigns, police dispatch special investigators who can identify extremist group members and other suspicious people at speech venues.

In recent years, however, there have been a remarkable number of lone wolf suspects, making it increasingly difficult to uncover signs of a threat.

In April 2015 a drone was flown onto the roof of the Prime Minister’s Office while Abe was prime minister. The man who flew the drone wrote in a blog post, “Guerilla warfare, I’m taking the first step by acting on my own … I’m a lone wolf.”

The drone carried radioactive materials. The man surrendered to police two days after the drone incident and he was convicted of charges including forcible obstruction of business.

Though the man was committed to opposing nuclear power plants, he had not belonged to citizens groups or other entities advocating this position. Police also found no confirmation that the man had participated in protests either.

“Until his surrender to police, we were not aware of him at all,” said a senior official of the Metropolitan Police Department who took part in the investigation. “I deeply felt that it would be necessary to strengthen measures to deal with these lone wolves.”

Focusing on 2 areas

In recent years, police have focused on two areas in their measures to deal with such individuals.

The first area regards explosives. Since the 2000s, police have asked retailers of chemicals that can become ingredients in explosive materials to notify police of suspicious orders. In 2015, police asked major online retailers to provide information about suspicious persons who buy pyrotechnic products from which gunpowder can be removed.

The second area targets social media. In 2016, the National Police Agency established the Internet OSINT Center, which automatically collects postings and other information that may be connected with acts of terrorism and has used it in investigations.

The NPA has also asked operators of websites with information on how to make guns to delete the information.

However, such police requests to private businesses are not legally binding and thus the effectiveness of the measures is limited.