“Armed Man Episode in Islamabad:
Lessons on Effective Crisis Management and Ethical Media Practices”
On 15th August, 2013 evening an armed man with his wife and two small children armed with automatic weapons managed to reach near the red zone on the Jinnah Avenue of Islamabad where he was intercepted. He challenged the Islamabad police by brandishing his weapons and firing in the air. It should have been a minor incident to be handled at the police station level immediately but this did not happen as the entire police and the Ministry of Interior got involved. It lasted for six hours till a citizen took the initiative in his hands and forced the police to act and bringing to an end this episode that exposed some serious flaws in the preparedness of police of the capital and response of the government.
Stake holders and their roles
There were three stakeholders in this scenario; the government, the media the citizens and children of the armed man. The role of the government, which includes the entire executive structure of the state i.e. Ministry of Interior and Islamabad Capital Territory administration, was to engineer a successful outcome for the episode involving a rogue gunman who held the city country hostage for more than five hours. The role of the media was to provide informative and responsible coverage of the incident for viewer consumption. The citizens, who were required to support the government in this situation and extend their cooperation to Police. Their presence on the scene as spectators complicated matters and made it difficult for police to take decisive action. The children of the armed gunman were the most important silent stake holder whose life, security and welfare were at stake.
The analysis of shooting incident in Islamabad will help us understand better the roles and responses of different stakeholders, inter alia police/law enforcement agencies, political leadership, media and the public. This may, in turn, influence decision making processes vis-à-vis similar incidents in the future.
Crisis management mechanism
We lack proper crisis management and at the federal level it is limited to crisis management cell in the Ministry of Interior that coordinates the exchange of intelligence reports and keeps track of any events, but this cell has no operational role and lack response mechanism. Each police force is required to develop its own crisis management mechanism keeping in view emerging challenges.
For tackling a range of situations, training has been imparted to the officers at the supervisory level with the support of foreign experts. At the operational level, this training has not translated into concrete SOPs for situations that can be classified only broadly as each incident is unique in nature. In such cases, only broad guidelines need to be followed. This does not seem to have happened in this case. The police force has a large number of trained staff at the tactical and operational levels in the lower ranks who are adequately equipped to deal with a situation of this kind. The police, however, do not have the resources to deal with a heavily armed onslaught like the one we have witnessed in recent jailbreaks and string of incidents in Swat before the army was called in to restore the writ of the state. Tragically, the civilian provincial government has failed to replace such intervention with an effective law enforcement structure.
Command and control structure
The question centers on whether the command and control structure was well placed and whether it dealt effectively with the episode. The answer in one word is NO. There are three levels of decision making: policy, strategy and tactical. All these need to be carefully calibrated to ensure that these complement one another rather than act counterproductively in the course of life threatening situations. Under normal circumstances, one would expect a defined policy by the top leadership to deal with terrorism. Such a policy would provide guidelines to the implementation agencies for devising their strategy and plan at the tactical level. This is not done during an ongoing operation but well before the incident. Here there was neither a policy nor a strategy; therefore, the operational commander in the frontline was clueless and was unable to devise a tactical plan. The Minister gave instructions that, under no circumstances, should the police use force endangering the lives of the children and the wife of the offender who was holding the city hostage. Instructions from the Minister restricted their actions, and the drama continued for hours. Amidst this confusion, other actors started intervening. These ranged from politicians to media persons whose intervention compounded the existing chaos. There were practically no defined parameters to restrict the interference in an ongoing emergency that should have been tactically handled by the police on ground. It was the duty of the senior police leadership to ignore such instructions and to explain the risks to the minister. These orders were not resisted, and the initiative was snatched by others thus forcing the police into action. The operational decision needs to be taken by the field officers who can also be held accountable if they cross the limitations defined by the law.
The operational commander who did not follow even the basic standards of dealing with an episode of this nature must share the blame. Briefly, the area was not cordoned off at a safe distance from the scene and the people approaching the offender were not stopped. Similarly, access to the cellular phone line of the gunman was not jammed. Both these things could have been done easily. Police do this as a matter of routine during VIP movements. The cell phone could have been cut off by instructing the service provider or by deploying a jammer. For six long hours, the police leadership failed to take any initiative except to buy time due to the instructions received from the Minister. They had three clear options: 1)Negotiation to resolve the standoff 2) to disarm him by sending their elite personnel in disguise, or to use force that could result in causality 3) to give him safe passage and intercept him outside the city.
Prolonging the incident created frustration, ambiguity, fear and many other negative impressions about the capabilities of police. From the outset, it was evident that there was an absence of skill-based incident management ranging from incident-scene management, area cordoning, public/spectator control, negotiation skills, media management, inter agency coordination etc.
One of the objectives of a prolonged dialogue, besides convincing the armed man to surrender peacefully, was also to buy time and prepare different strategies/plans. However, this was not evident in this case, and after a lapse of almost six hours, no clear strategy was observed.
Lack of management at the scene of incident did not only put the lives of the armed man and his family members at risk but also those of the hundreds of spectators who could have fallen prey to indiscriminate shooting or any other collateral damage.
The wavering on the part of the authorities bordered on paralysis. This tarnished the image of the police and highlighted the incompetence of the government in dealing with a minor incident that should have been wrapped up by the junior-level functionaries of the police within one hour. It raised serious concerns about the safety of the capital of the country.
Role of media and Responsibility of police in media management
As stated earlier, no one, including the media, should have been permitted by the police to go beyond a defined distance towards the crime scene. Here the responsibility rested squarely on the shoulders of the police. However, with the new technology and long range lenses, the media had the capability to televise the scene. The reporting was most irresponsible. The ramifications of such coverage are extremely negative; these include grave operational implications and offer unpalatable incentives for any madman to get uninterrupted live coverage for six hours. Operationally, I would like to mention only two serious episodes- one at the Munawa Police Training Center and the other at the Mumbai attack where the handlers anywhere in the world had a running commentary with live coverage that enabled them to alerting the terrorists in the field in action via cell phones. In this case, investigation can uncover whether his handlers if any used the live coverage as a resource to enable the gunman to further his plan of action. It would appear that he only wanted live coverage, and the media readily obliged.
Live coverage of the entire episode shed light on any and every action of police as well as those of the armed man and his family leaving all stakeholders exposed to any adverse reaction by known and unknown persons. Direct engagement with and televised interview of the armed man on different TV channels was far beyond the role of the media. The media is supposed to update the public on important events rather to to create the event or the news.
Understandably, the media is hungry for information on such dramatic incidents; therefore, it is imperative that the police department should have a public relations wing with trained personnel who should brief the media about the event. Such PR professionals should also advise the media about the implication of their coverage.
It was not only the incident that exposed Islamabad police but also the post-incident management strategy, which called into question their preparedness and competence.. We have witnessed spokespersons of the hospital talking to the media with no overall direction as what should be shared. Besides his health condition, doctors have also been talking about the statements he has been making and his interaction with the police.
There may be a team of two people talking to the media and that too strictly about their areas of concern. Doctors may concern themselves only about the health condition; whereas, the police may share details about the case and any progress they have made so far.
Within media, there should be an internal mechanism that allows only responsible coverage of such incidents following a code of conduct that should, at all costs, safeguard public and national interest. PEMRA has the primary responsibility to regulate the media, and it must take firm action where the channels violate the law or the agreed code of conduct. We are faced with serious terrorism and insurgency, and it is vital that the media is made aware of their responsibility and also pursued with legal action wherever necessary.
Responsibility of citizens
The citizens too are not aware of their responsibilities, and their lack of cooperation has resulted in tragic incidents where many have lost their lives in secondary bomb blasts. Even in this case, the members of the public gathered in the area were exposed to serious risks and they could have been easily injured or even died by stray bullets.
The direct broadcasting of shooting and eventual injuring of the armed man was violation of code of conduct of any civilized country. Millions of people including children and others were watching the open use of arms with little attempt at censorship. On the one hand, we proactively use censorship for curbing obscenity on the other hand, we have little compunction or censorship in what we show to the public while covering such incidents.
The Government should initiate a media campaign to create awareness and to safeguard our future in the long term the youth should be educated about their responsibilities in such situations.
I would like to conclude my paper with review of an incident during which the police took action with horrifying outcomes. More than a decade ago, in Sialkot jail the prisoners took some judicial officials as hostage. The local police leadership after taking into considerations all the threat aspects took bold action that resulted in the release of the hostages but also led to two casualties in the firing that ensued. The officers were booked on a murder case and are still facing a long trial that has yet to be concluded. If the state cannot protect the members of the law enforcement who take action in fulfilling their legal responsibilities, no one will be ready to show any initiative in dealing with a crisis. Repeated failure of the police on a number of occasions is the direct result of political interference. The police are also confronted with persecution in carrying out their duties, which in any case entail risk of life including their own.
One lesson we must learn from this incident is that it is time for all of us to take a long hard look at how stakeholders must respond to such incidents and to overcome our weaknesses so as to develop a greater level of maturity and responsibility in dealing with similar situations in the future.