Lessons From The Assassination Of A Russian Ambassador


On the evening of the 19th of December, 2016, the world was shocked as news started coming 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 centre for modern arts in Anka. 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 is 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 in such high-definition footage makes it all the more astounding. But why is paying attention to case studies of this sort so important?

For starters, it is very natural for people to focus all their attention on the attack itself, especially when there is 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 is certainly what to learn from a reactive sense, but from a proactive, preventive sense, the useful information being looked for is mostly to be found before an attack begins.

Many case study articles and seminars tend to miss this point and only concentrate on the attack and its aftermath. But case studies that do not reveal specific information about hostile planning and that subsequently have nothing to teach about how to potentially prevent hostile planning in the future, are not all that useful for those in charge of preventive security. Yes, they are fascinating, and yes, they are very useful for those in charge of reactive, force-on-force countermeasures. But for those in charge of prevention, always keep in mind that preventive security does not target the attack itself; it targets what comes before the attack. It targets hostile planning. It is therefore the hostile planning process that security need to concentrate on, understand how it works, locate its weaknesses and target it in order to prevent the next attack before it happens.

As the attempt is made to understand what exactly led up to this specific attack, it is important to remain patient. Security obviously want to learn what happened as quickly as they can so that they can implement the lessons from this case study, but it often takes quite a bit of time until vital information gets released (and keep in mind that neither the Turkish nor Russian authorities are known for their transparency).

Still, considering the little that is known, and what can be induced from the footage, there are a few preliminary conclusions that can be reached.

The first thing known is that many hostile plans involve various forms of intelligence collection – one of which coming from open sources (public information, media, various publications, and so on). Another piece of the puzzle is that it had been announced that Karlov would be attending, and speaking at, the Cagdas Sanat Merkezi centre for modern arts for the opening night of the Russia through Turks’ eyes exhibition.

This means that the information (or rather intelligence) about Karlov being in a specific location at a specific time had been made available in advance. Add this to what is known from case studies about open-sourced information collection and a pretty solid risk exists.

Now, risks of this sort should be expected, especially by diplomats whose very jobs largely consist of 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 the abovementioned risk must be mitigated (as much as possible and/or desirable) by some type of protection program. And yet, another piece of the puzzle is that no physical protection operators were present around Karlov. 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 – consisting of both hostile motives and hostile opportunity. 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 has been announced in advance. And if this is standard operating procedure in the San Francisco Bay area, it should definitely have also been the case in Ankara.

Now, just in case readers think that a protective detail would have not necessarily 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 lesson to learn here. Even if it is accepted the idea that a protective detail would not have prevented the attack (not that such a thing could be proved), it still does not negate the main lesson – that diplomats (especially ones in higher risk areas) should receive 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. The exact details of any attack, let alone the details of its planning, can never be completely copied and repeated. Instead, case studies are important opportunities to take actual (rather than theoretical) data and derive certain principles from them. Rather than concentrate on each detailed tree, try to take a wider angled view of the forest to learn important principles that can come into play in future events.

Ami Toben
Ami Toben is Director of Consulting and Training at HighCom Security Services based in San Francisco, USA. A former Tank Commander in the Israeli Defence Force, Ami also specialises and lectures in the areas of terrorist activity prevention; surveillance detection; 
penetration testing 
and event & facility security management.