The 2½ seconds of security lapses that sealed Shinzo Abe's fate

Bodyguards could have saved Shinzo Abe's life had they shielded or removed him from the line of fire in the 2½ seconds between a missed first shot and a second round of gunfire that fatally wounded him, security experts say.

Former Japanese prime minister was fatally wounded on July 8

A man speaks into a microphone
In this image from a video, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe makes a campaign speech in Nara, in western Japan, shortly before he was fatally wounded on July 8, 2022. (Kyodo News/The Associated Press)

Bodyguards could have saved Shinzo Abe's life had they shielded or removed him from the line of fire in the 2½ seconds between a missed first shot and a second round of gunfire that fatally wounded him, according to eight security experts who reviewed footage of the former Japanese leader's assassination.

The failure to protect Abe from the second shot followed a series of security lapses in the lead-up to the assassination of Japan's longest-serving prime minister on July 8, the Japanese and international experts said.

Abe's killing in the western Japanese city of Nara by a man using a homemade weapon shocked a nation where gun violence is rare and politicians campaign up close to the public with light security.

Japanese authorities — including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida — have acknowledged security lapses, and police say they are investigating.

In addition to the security experts, Reuters spoke to six witnesses at the scene and examined multiple videos available online, taken from different angles, to piece together a detailed account of security measures ahead of Abe's shooting.

After leaving 67-year-old Abe exposed from behind as he spoke on a traffic island on a public road, his security detail allowed the shooter — identified by police as Tetsuya Yamagami, 41 — to come unchecked within metres of Abe. Yamagami was carrying a weapon, the footage showed.

"They should have seen the attacker very deliberately walking toward the rear of the prime minister and intervened," said Kenneth Bombace, head of Global Threat Solutions, which provided security to Joe Biden when he was a presidential candidate.

Yamagami came within seven metres of Abe before firing his first shot, which missed, the Yomiuri newspaper said, citing investigative sources. The second shot, which hit Abe, was fired from around five metres away, it said.

No 'rings of security'

Abe's bodyguards did not appear to have "concentric rings of security" around him, nor any type of surveillance in the crowd, said John Soltys, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and CIA officer now a vice-president at security firm Prosegur.

Asked about the experts' analysis, the Nara Prefectural Police, in charge of security for Abe's campaign stop, told Reuters in a statement the department was "committed to thoroughly identifying the security problems" with Abe's protection, declining to comment further.

The video footage showed that, after the first shot, Abe turns and looks over his left shoulder. Two bodyguards scramble to get between him and the shooter, one hoisting a slim black bag. Two others head toward the shooter, who moves closer through the smoke.

Tetsuya Yamagami, front right, holding a homemade weapon, is detained after Abe was shot. Japanese authorities, including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, have acknowledged security lapses may have led to the assassination. (Nara Shimbun/Kyodo News/The Associated Press)

Although Abe's security tackled the assailant moments later and arrested him, it was the "wrong response" for some of the security to go after the shooter instead of moving to protect Abe, said Mitsuru Fukuda, a Nihon University professor specializing in crisis management and terrorism.

There was enough security, "but no sense of danger," said Yasuhiro Sasaki, a retired police officer in Saitama prefecture near Tokyo.

"Everyone was startled and no one went to where Abe was," he said.

The National Police Agency, which oversees local police forces, said Abe's killing was the result of the police failures. In response, the agency said it has set up a team to review security and protection measures and to consider concrete steps to prevent such a serious incident from recurring.

"We recognize that there were problems," the agency said in response to Reuters questions. "Not only in the on-site response, such as the security and protection set-up, deployment of personnel and fundamental security procedures, but also in the way the National Police Agency was involved."

Reuters could not reach Yamagami, who remains in police custody, for comment and could not determine whether he had a lawyer.

'Could have been avoided'

Footage shows four bodyguards inside the guardrails as Abe spoke, according to Koichi Ito, a former sergeant at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department's special assault team, who is now a security consultant. The number of bodyguards was corroborated by local politician Masahiro Okuni, who was at the scene.

When the former prime minister stepped up to speak, Yamagami could be seen in video footage clapping in the background.

As Yamagami walked up behind Abe, security did not appear to take action, the footage showed.

Police inspect the site where Abe was shot. The assassination shocked Japan where gun violence is rare and politicians campaign up close to the public with light security. (Kyodo News/The Associated Press)

Abe should have had a dedicated close protection bodyguard to get him away, said a member of the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service, which protects senior diplomats and foreign dignitaries.

"We would grab him by the belt and collar, shield him with our body and move away," the agent said.

WATCH | Crowds pay respects to former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe: 

Former Japanese prime minister laid to rest

1 year ago
Duration 4:35
Thousands of mourners gather outside a temple where the funeral of the former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was held. Abe was assassinated while on the campaign trail and investigations are underway.

Ito, the former police sergeant, said security could have stopped the first shot had they been vigilant and communicating.

"Even if they missed that, there was a more than two-second window before the second shot, so they definitely could have prevented that," he said. "If Abe had been protected properly, it could have been avoided."