Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has been repeatedly photographed wearing military gear while holding a gun.
His 15-year-old son is now also one of his armed bodyguards.
Western security experts believe Lukashenko wants to be sure he is never the only unarmed man in the room, just in case his inner circle gets ideas.
Embattled strongman Alexander Lukashenko continues to cling to power in Belarus despite huge protests over a disputed August 9 election, and Russian President Putin appears to be propping him up.
But Western intelligence services tracking the crisis have noticed a trend that they believe suggests Lukashenko is more worried about his personal security than he is letting on: He has been repeatedly photographed wearing military gear while holding a gun.
"When dictators start carrying weapons themselves it's usually a sign they're worried about internal threats not the protestors," said a member of the Belgian military intelligence service who tracks Russian intelligence operations. The source and has worked in the Middle East and Africa undercover, which is why they cannot be identified in the media.
"Security for Lukashenko is designed like most autocrats, there's concentric circles of authority and security designed so that no one group or ministry — military, domestic security, intelligence services — is in a position to kill or remove the Boss," the official told Insider. "But in the end there's got to be people around Lukashenko with weapons to protect him, his display of weapons, as well as his armed teenage son, being present is a signal to them that the Boss is prepared to kill anyone who loses their nerve."
"It's not a great sign that he's secure about the loyalty of his inner circle," the source added.
His teenage son is now carrying a firearm, too
On August 24, Lukashenko responded to increasingly vehement calls that he leave power by arriving at his presidential palace with a carbine version of the AK-74 assault rifle, commonly issued to pilots, vehicle crews, and special forces because of its small size. State television footage also identified one armed, masked gunman as Lukashenko's 15-year-old son, Nikoli.
The use of family as a last line of defense against possible traitors is as old as dictatorships themselves. According to a former member of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's security detail, Lukashenko is following a well-established playbook in a time of crisis.
"You can't trust anyone who thinks they can replace you or benefit from replacing you and this includes your ministers, bodyguards, drivers and even some family members," said Abu Issa, who says as a Palestinian Christian he was specifically recruited to be a member of the Special Republican Guard that protected Saddam Hussein's palaces because he was not Iraqi or Muslim and thus could never hope to replace Saddam.
"The closest bodyguards would have to be family, and that included [Saddam's sons] Uday and Qusai, they always carried guns to protect themselves and because they were maniacs, but they needed guns to protect themselves and their father from the people around them. You can have all the power in the world but your bodyguards or ministers need to know you will shoot them if they betray you. Protestors are not the threat, the people you tell to shoot the protestors are the people who can betray you."
The Belgian intelligence official described the need for personal weapons as the downside of power as an autocrat.
"Most democratically elected officials don't need to carry guns to keep their jobs, but if you're Lukashenko or Saddam or Gaddafi, it's really not smart to be the only guy in the room without a gun."
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