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Public Figures on Stage: How to Protect Them

Former FBI Supervisory Special Agent and creator of the Bureau’s Close Protection course, James Hamilton, offers some helpful strategies for protecting public figures during Known Public Appearances.

Last Saturday, Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa gave a campaign speech at a sports stadium in the city of Bulawayo. Upon completing his speech and attempting to exit “stage-right” down a few steps with his entourage, an explosion occurred. This video indicates the explosion originating adjacent to those stage-right steps. As of now, what caused the explosion remains a mystery. The timing and location of the explosion, however, suggests two things. First, some type of bomb or grenade caused the explosion. Second, it was an assassination attempt on President Mnangagwa and not the first.

I have provided close protection during many scheduled public appearances all over the world and no matter the venue or country, two areas of venue preparation always play a critical role in the success or failure of the operation: Access Control and White Space. These concepts, plus many more, are best explained through my protection bible, Just 2 Seconds – a book that always bring me back to the basics.

In regards to the recent attack in Zimbabwe, Access Control and White Space were critical components of the attack. Below I discuss both concepts, plus two additional tactical concepts (Non-public Departures and Transitions) relevant to this attack.

Access Control

  • During “The Advance” preceding the event, did President Mnangagwa’s protective detail establish an access control plan, including searching people/bags, and badging procedures?

White Space

  • Was the distance (White Space) between the stage and the crowd divided by physical barriers and controlled/observed by security or members of the protective detail?
  • Was the White Space empty of people, so that anyone entering the area by climbing over a barrier or ducking below a rope line is immediately showing their intent?

Public Entry, Non-public Departure

  • Was a private departure through the back of the stage possible?
  • Did venue security or the protective detail sweep the routes their protectee would take and post those routes once swept?

More on this concept: What do Yitzak Rabin, Ronald Regan, Gerald Ford, and now, President Mnangagwa, all have in common? They were/are heads of state attacked while exiting an event.

In Just 2 Seconds, Gavin de Becker writes, “Over time at a public event, people are inclined to encroach upon stanchions, ropes, and barricades…” In short, he concludes, ‘the order that was established at the beginning of events often disintegrates by the end.”

When tired protectors drop their guard and physical security measures are relaxed over time, an attacker who places a bomb or waits with a gun/grenade along the protectee’s exit route off the stage is more likely to succeed.

Managing the Transitions

Lastly, it always comes down to the mindset of the Protector and being in the NOW. Nowhere is that more important than during the transition phase of an operation (e.g. protectee from car to Green Room, Green Room to stage, stage to car). During these times it is critical for Protectors to focus on his/her physical positioning relative to the protectee: Am I close enough to be effective? And, if I have to Cover and Evacuate, where am I going?

Stay safe and vigilant

James Hamilton is a widely regarded expert on protection. Before his career at Gavin de Becker & Associates, James served 17 years as a Special Agent in the FBI, where he was handpicked to create, develop, and implement the FBI Academy’s Protective Training curriculum. His courses are currently taught to protectors at the NSA, NYPD, and many other agencies.

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