Realms of Safety | Sunday Observer

Realms of Safety

A protection team in action
A protection team in action

Motorbike outrider 

Julius Caesar, Archduke Fransz Ferdinand, Indira Gandhi, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Mahathma Gandhi, all shared one common element in life- they were brutally assassinated, despite having a close protection unit, or as we say, a team of ‘body guards’. How does one guarantee the safety of a person often classified as a VIP? Since the invention of the sword and shield which were primary weapons, security related devices have evolved into a high tech domain of gadgets, bullet proof armour and top secret surveillance. Securing a political or religious leader or a commercially important person remains an active challenge. As today’s society is highly interactive, so is the level of increased risk which remains a dormant threat.

As criminal elements and terror groups have access to GPS and other tracking devices VIP convoys must maintain constant vigilance. The newest threat as seen in other countries is drone attacks (airborne) and vehicles being used to ram into convoys. The era of the suicide vest is perhaps being replaced with Chemical and Biological weapons. In some African countries even witchcraft has been used to target people, although it sounds bizarre.

There are 5 phases of any terrorist operation- 1. Target selection 2. Target intelligence 3. Operational Planning 4. Attack 5. Escape. Thus, law enforcement has to try and mitigate each phase as per the intelligence received and deploy effective counter measures. Sri Lanka has had its own assassinations in the past 5 decades. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was shot dead using a revolver. In 1987, there was a grenade attack inside Parliament. Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed by a suicide bomber.

Here we can observe the method of attack growing with technology and increased criminal intent: from a revolver, to a hand grenade and finally, an explosive laden human. The LTTE used many varying tactics to ambush motorcades at vulnerable ‘choke points”. In fact, many VIPs were assassinated while travelling in their guarded convoys.

The Sri Lanka Police had to raise a unit to protect the VIPs entrusted to them. In 1979, a team from Malaysia conducted a training course for local officers. With the formation of the Special Task Force, the first VIP security course was taught in 1987. Since then the STF VIP Protection Division has made a magnificent journey of excellence.

I visited their training school to see the formation of a real body guard. Superintendent of Police, Athula Daulagala is an officer who has formerly served as a Director of this wing. He has been trained in Georgia, USA.

SP Daulagala has the distinction of guarding Pope John Paul 11 on his visit to Sri Lanka and the Pope has rewarded him with a Bible. SP Daulagala explained to me, the STF VIP course is held for ten weeks. Officers already serving are selected by a physical endurance test, firing test and quick reaction test. After each week of training they face an exam.

I moved over to a field where I met Inspector D.G.M.Chinthaka, the present Instructor for VIP training. He and his team showed me some demonstrations beginning with a one member (Close Protection Officer) security drill.

This was followed by adding other members until there are 7 members in the squad who make up the ‘extended diamond’ formation which is performed for high risk VIPs . In this foot formation each officer has a 72 degree field of sight. Securing a VIP has loads of advanced planning. The men form 4 ‘ring rounds’- protective circles of preventive defence around the VIP. The first is the Close Protection ring using a number of men as per threat level. It is followed by the Inner Protection ring, who engage in search duties and filter points (at indoor venues). Intermediate Protection ring sustains the other teams with vital surveillance.

The Outer Protection ring completes the formation by using road blocks, snipers and anti- snipers. In addition, as the VIP is moved there is a back up Tactical Support Team, who will move forward and suppress any imminent threat enroute.

It was time to be protected and experience some defensive driving. I get into a car with my own back up vehicle and pilot vehicle. On a given signal by the PSO the driver does the famous J- Turn.

This brilliant driving manoeuvre is done while the car is still at about 50 miles per hour without any slowing down or stopping. As the car turns, a cloud of dust rises. In a convoy the driver has an important role.

Under command he can use the car as a weapon to ram their way out of an ambush. My convoy is now joined by four motorbikes of “outriders”. The outriders are very effective as they can move back and forth on narrow streets.

The STF men show their prowess in climbing and boarding a moving defender jeep. One wrong step can result is a serious fall. These are the men who once protected John Kerry and Bill Clinton on their visits to Sri Lanka.

VIP duty in real life is not like in the glorified movies. It is a highly intense team oriented job. It warrants continuous training and top levels of physical endurance. IP Chinthaka took me to the firing range. Here six officers demonstrated live firing by using the MP5 machine gun. All members of VIP wing are taught swimming.

Over the past few years some Officers have been trained in Pakistan, by the world famous SSG (Army Unit). I met one such officer IP Asanka Seniviratne, who shared his experience from the 23 day course.

Retired DIG Nimal Lewke is a pioneer of VIP security in Sri Lanka. He is the first ASP in charge of VIP Wing and received training by Israel instructors through the good effort of the late Ravi Jayawardene.

They were trained to draw a gun and fire within a second. He told me ‘Intelligence and planning is the key to security’. DIG Lewke presently serves as a Defence Advisor to the President.

He emphasizes that a Protection Officer must display 100% discipline and commitment. He also opines that VIP convoys must maintain a low profile and travel in a manner without inconveniencing the public, but also pointed out that politicians do have a right to be close to the people.

The present Commandant of STF Senior DIG Latiff has also served as an OIC of the VIP Wing from 1989 to 1992. Having trained in UK he said “VIP security is a team effort, every link in the chain must function perfectly”

The men must also strive to protect the image of the assigned VIP. The Special Task Force along with other agencies has been involved in providing security for the visiting Prime Minister of India. While security remains the profession of trained men, the public also have a duty to be security conscious. Security therefore is a mindset.