posted on 12 May 2016
Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet has long been subject to intense scrutiny from the government. For several years, the daily's journalists have been regularly threatened and arrested for criticizing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But on May 6, a lone gunman opened fire on the newspaper's editor-in-chief, Can Dundar, as he addressed the press outside an Istanbul courthouse.
During the attack, the shooter screamed that Dundar was a traitor, suggesting that the perpetrator is likely an ultranationalist. Although the AKP may not be directly responsible for the attack, by labeling Dundar and Cumhuriyet enemies of the Turkish state, it has effectively turned them into targets. In 2008, for instance, Cumhuriyet's offices were firebombed.
The attack occurred while Dundar was on trial with another Cumhuriyet journalist, Erdem Gul, for an array of charges, including counts of espionage and revealing state secrets in certain Cumhuriyet reports. Dundar's wife interrupted the attack by pushing the gunman's arm, causing his shots to miss Dundar, though one diverted bullet grazed another journalist's leg. Muharrem Erkek, a deputy with the main opposition Republican People's Party, then grabbed and restrained the shooter until police could arrive at the scene. After the shooting incident, Dundar, who faced a potential life sentence for the charged offenses, returned to court, where he received a sentence of five years and 10 months in prison.
When I wrote in March on the different strands of terrorism that are strangling Turkey, I did not address far-right terrorism. Nonetheless, this kind of terrorism - linked to groups such as the Gray Wolves and the Nationalist Movement Party - has been a problem in Turkey since the mid-1970s. And as the assassination attempt against Dundar reminds us, the danger, albeit less pressing now than threats from other terrorist groups, persists to this day. In addition, the attack on Dundar was documented on video and in photographs to the extent that few assassination attempts have been, providing unusual insight into how it transpired and, ultimately, how it failed. By analyzing the video and photos, we can draw several important protective intelligence lessons from this attack.
Dissecting the Attack
In the video of the attack, the 40-year-old gunman, who has since been identified as Murat Sahin, approaches Dundar from behind. Once he has gotten within about 10 feet of his target, Sahin draws and opens fire with a semi-automatic pistol. Standing behind her husband (and next to the assailant), Dundar's wife, Dilek Dundar, notices Sahin draw his weapon and take aim at Dundar. In response, she lunges toward Sahin, striking his arm and sending his first shot wide. After missing Dundar with his first shot, Sahin fires a second, which goes low and grazes reporter Yagiz Senkal's leg. Mrs. Dundar then grabs Sahin by the collar and prevents him from swinging his firing arm around to fire additional shots. Despite Sahin's attempts to back away and re-engage Dundar, by this time - two seconds into the attack - Erkek has stepped forward and begins grappling with Sahin. Meanwhile, Dundar has moved to Sahin's left and hides behind Senkal.
Because Erkek has his right arm restrained, Sahin switches the pistol to his left hand and raises his arm in an apparent attempt to fire at Dundar once again. But Senkal's presence between them seems to give him pause - fortunately for Senkal and Dundar. Sahin then surrenders, more or less, allowing Erkek to hold him until the police arrive to disarm and subdue him. Six seconds into the attack, Senkal has the presence of mind to move Dundar, who had frozen at the attack site, away from the scene and back toward the courthouse.
From the video, it is obvious that Sahin is not a trained shooter: His stance is upright and rigid, and he uses only one hand on his pistol. As a result, Dilek Dundar could push him off-balance - and off-target - with ease. Similarly, his slow and mechanical draw enabled Mrs. Dundar to react before the first shot was fired. Moreover, Sahin seems to have tunnel vision throughout the attack, fixating totally on his target. He does not strike or shoot Mrs. Dundar or Erkek, and he chooses not to shoot Senkal to get to Dundar. A more competent shooter, or a more vicious attacker less concerned with collateral damage, likely would have succeeded in killing Dundar. In fact, Sahin claimed afterward that he had merely wanted to wound Dundar as a warning, though videos and photos from the scene belie that claim: His pistol was clearly aimed at Dundar's torso.
After further investigation into the attack, Turkish police have arrested two other men accused of helping Sahin orchestrate the shooting. One of the men, who was apparently unarmed, may have been following Dundar inside the courthouse. According to unconfirmed police allegations, cellphone records indicate that the second man called Sahin from inside the courthouse to signal that Dundar was headed outside. More importantly, surveillance footage shows that Sahin had lurked outside the courthouse for more than eight hours before launching his attack, according to a Hurriyet Daily News report. Given the publicity surrounding Dundar's trial, a would-be assassin could easily learn when Dundar would be at the courthouse.
As he waited for Dundar outside the courthouse, Sahin made himself vulnerable to detection. Had he been detected and interrogated, his plot could have been thwarted. Even without an arrest, law enforcement observation might have caused him to call off his mission entirely. But apparently nobody was on the lookout for him, or for anyone else staking out the area.
That the armed Sahin prowled outside the courthouse for so long without being noticed and confronted is troubling - especially in light of Turkey's many other terrorist problems. For example, the Marxist Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front has a long history of attacking Turkish justice institutions, including courthouses. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons have also hit government targets in Istanbul and Ankara, while the Islamic State has attacked crowded areas in Istanbul and elsewhere. In such an environment, one would not expect that a gunman could lie in wait for over eight hours in front of an important government building without being detected.
Furthermore, Sahin also managed to gain access to the gated press area without being challenged, allowing him to walk up behind Dundar. This suggests that courthouse security failed to properly secure the press pen. In 1980, the U.S. Secret Service made the same mistake, which nearly cost President Ronald Reagan his life. Since then, the incident has been used to illustrate the importance of vetting and searching individuals admitted to the press pen. The Dundar case, in which this lesson was apparently overlooked, now serves as yet another reminder of the possible risks lurking in the press pen.
Getting off the X
For individuals such as Can Dundar who have been threatened and are thus wary that they could be attacked, maintaining good situational awareness and being prepared to react under duress are crucial. One of the basic security principles I emphasize is the need to leave the attack site as quickly as possible. Security professionals refer to this as "getting off the X." By hiding behind Senkal, Dundar reacted to the situation somewhat. But he then stayed put for several seconds, watching the events unfold in close range of the still-armed assailant until Senkal rushed him away from the scene. This kind of behavior is not unusual. We've frequently addressed the response, called "going comatose," when discussing situational awareness.
Indeed, good situational awareness, coupled with proper mindset, can be the antidote to going comatose, enabling a person to quickly recognize an attack and respond accordingly. This is exactly what Dilek Dundar did. Instead of freezing up and watching as Sahin gunned her husband down, she quickly reacted, saving him from a serious gunshot wound at the very least, if not from death. Although Mrs. Dundar's assault on Sahin was not exactly textbook martial arts technique, it was enough to send the first shot wide of her husband's chest. Moreover, it bought a second for Erkek to join the fray and for Dundar to seek refuge behind Senkal. To save the day, Mrs. Dundar didn't have to be a superhero; her quick recognition and action sufficed.
Mrs. Dundar's actions and her ability to deflect the shots away from her husband provide an important reminder to executive protection professionals: In close quarters, it is quicker - and ultimately more effective - to go for an attacker's gun than it is to attempt to draw your own weapon to engage the threat. And, of course, had Dundar been protected by a competent security detail, Sahin should have been spotted and intercepted well before he could get close enough to draw his pistol.
"Lessons From an Istanbul Shooting" is republished with permission of Stratfor.
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