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A Lesson in Diplomatic Protection

Posted May 1, 2018 by Ami Toben

On the evening of the 19th of December, 2016, the world was shocked as news came out about the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov. Karlov was shot from behind as he was delivering a speech at the Cagdas Sanat Merkezi center for modern arts in Ankara. The assassin, off-duty Turkish police officer, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, showed his police credentials in order to appear like he was assigned as Karlov’s protection officer. He then got behind Karlov as he was delivering his speech and shot him a number of times. Altıntaş then made a number of religious and political statements, and was later shot and killed by police.

It’s certainly not every day that an ambassador gets assassinated, much less one from a major world power. And the fact that the entire event was captured for all to see—in high-definition—makes it all the more astounding. But let’s clarify why paying attention to case studies of this sort is so important.

For starters, it’s very natural for people (including many of those who write case study articles) to focus all their attention on the attack and its aftermath, especially when there’s such high-quality footage of it. But keep in mind that once the attack gets started, there is no longer much to learn about how it could have been prevented.

Yes, there’s certainly what to learn from a reactive, force-on-force perspective, but from a proactive, preventive sense, the useful information we’re looking for is mostly to be found before the attack begins. Preventive security doesn’t target the attack itself, it targets what comes before the attack—it targets hostile planning. So, from a preventive sense, we’d want to concentrate mostly on the hostile planning process; understand how it works, locate its weaknesses, and target them in order to prevent the next attack before it happens.

As we try to understand what exactly led up to Karlov’s assassination, it’s important to remain patient. We obviously want to learn everything that happened as quickly as we can, but it often takes quite a bit of time until all the information gets released (and keep in mind that neither the Turkish nor the Russian authorities are known for their transparency).

Still, considering the little we do know, and what we can induce from the footage, there are a few preliminary conclusions we can reach.

The first thing we know is that many hostile plans start with a collection of open sourced information (public information, media outlets, websites, social media, etc.). We also know that it had been announced in advance (on open sources) that Karlov would be attending, and speaking at, the Cagdas Sanat Merkezi center for the opening night of the “Russia through Turks’ eyes” exhibition. Connect these two pieces of the puzzle (which could, and should have been done in advance), and you have a pretty solid risk on your hands.

Now, risks of this sort should be expected, especially by diplomats whose very jobs largely consist of their attending various events that are announced in advance. A diplomat, unlike a clandestine operator, is supposed to be a public figure. But this is why risks like the above mentioned should be mitigated by some type of protection program. And yet, we know that no executive protection operators were present at the event.

This, along with the fact that Russian-Turkish relations have been strained for some time, and along with the risks to Russian interests due to their involvement in the Syrian civil war, meant that a substantial vulnerability had opened up that evening—with both hostile motives and hostile opportunity in play. The obvious conclusion here is that it was a mistake for the Russian ambassador to attend an event that had been announced in advance without any protection.

Lest this seem like hind-sighted, after-the-fact, armchair quarterbacking, from my experience with, in and around diplomatic security in the San Francisco Bay Area (which is much less dangerous than Ankara these days), I can tell you that one of the parameters for deciding if a diplomat should have a protective detail at an event is if their presence at the event had been announced in advance. And if this is standard operating procedures in the San Francisco Bay Area, it should definitely have been so in Ankara.

I know many people (mostly outside the industry) who wrongly assume that diplomats are surrounded by close protection details 24/7, anywhere they go. But industry professionals can tell you (very generally, and without any exact details) that many diplomats actually spend long periods of time without any close protection. It’s a question of analyzing and managing risks. When the risks are deemed to be sufficiently low, the diplomat might go unprotected (especially if he/she insists on it), and if the risks are deemed high (as they were in Ankara) then the diplomat receives protection.

Now, just in case you think a protective detail would not have prevented an off-duty police officer, posing as an official police representative, from executing the attack, keep in mind that this is not the main point here. Even if we accept the idea that a protective detail would not have prevented this specific attack, it still doesn’t negate the main lesson, which is that diplomats (especially ones in higher-risk areas) should have a protective detail if their presence at a specific location and time is announced in advance.

Remember, learning from case studies is not a retrospective game of ‘what-if’, where we attempt to correct for every specific detail that was involved in a specific case. The exact details of any single attack, let alone the exact details of its planning, can never be completely copied or repeated. Instead, case studies are important opportunities to take actual (rather than theoretical) data, and derive certain principles from them. And the main principle here is that a protective detail should be deployed (after sufficient advance work) if the presence of an important figure, at a specific time and location, had been announced in advance.

Ami Toben

Author, consultant, operator, security director.

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