Beslan: The Peril of Ignoring History

6 MINS READDec 29, 2005 | 02:24 GMT
Russian officials on Dec. 28 released the results of a parliamentary investigation into the 2004 terrorist attack in the Russian city of Beslan, North Ossetia. The incident ended after Russian security forces stormed a school Sept. 3 hoping to end a three-day siege by Chechen militants, resulting in the death of 331 hostages, many of them children. Chaired by Sen. Alexander Torshin, deputy chairman of the Federation Council, the commission found no fault with Russian security officials who responded to the attack. It did, however, fault local officials for not increasing security following warnings of a possible attack. The attack began when more than 30 militants, most of them ethnic Chechens, crossed the border between Chechnya and the republic of Ingushetia and drove 70 miles to Beslan. Russian security forces did not stop the attackers at any checkpoint along the way. The militants herded more than 1,200 people into the school's gymnasium and larger classrooms. Although they issued demands that Russian forces leave Chechnya, the militants did not appear to have an exit plan, suggesting they intended their attack as a suicide mission aimed at causing as many casualties as possible. The militants' nihilistic and brutal intent became evident through their refusal to allow their hostages access to food, water or medical care during the entire siege.
The Russian response took the form of deploying the Russian Federal Security Service's (FSB) Spetsgruppa Alfa and Spetsgruppa Vympel special forces units to the scene early Sept. 2. In addition, regular army soldiers, Interior Ministry troops, local police and even armed local residents claiming to belong to the local "home guard" were on the scene, according to David T. Schiller, editor-in-chief of German magazine "Visier." Overall, there was a lack of coordination between the FSB/military element and local authorities. The security forces failed to control the scene adequately; no effective perimeter was set up and the area was not cordoned off. Militants in the school exchanged sporadic fire with the security forces as crowds of civilians and members of various security forces milled around. Some of the hostages' relatives arrived on the scene with their own weapons, and were permitted to remain — and even to take up positions alongside the security forces. This contributed to the Russians' command-and-control problems and resulted in an almost total lack of fire discipline. In addition, because of the lack of communication between the various local and federal security forces, there was no clear distribution of tasks among the Russians — no units were specifically assigned to controlling the perimeter, assaulting the militants, or evacuating wounded and hostages. In addition, a lack of radio communication between the different security forces contributed greatly to the confusion. Finally, an explosion inside the school Sept. 3 triggered an all-out assault on the school building by the forces surrounding it. The assault began during daylight hours, which deprived the Alfa and Vympel teams of the element of surprise and of the cover of darkness. Overall, the final assault seems to have been kicked off in reaction to events inside the school, without proper planning or coordination between the security forces, rather than at a time of the Russians' choosing. During the assault, many hostages were cut down in the crossfire between the militants and security forces; there also were reports that some of the militants were able to slip away from the school during the confusion, only to be hunted down by locals later. The militants that have fought Russian government forces in the Northern Caucasus region during varying periods of intensity have been — and will continue to be — a formidable opponent. Since 1994, Chechen nationalist militants and jihadists have engaged Russian military and police forces in insurgent combat, with all-out open warfare erupting twice. The Chechen capital of Grozny has been practically destroyed in the 1994-1996 first Chechen war and during the second Chechen war, which began in 1999. Through this extensive experience, the Chechen militants have learned how to fight the Russians. During the Soviet period, many Chechens served in the Red Army, and some fought in Afghanistan, where they gained valuable experience in planning military operations. These Chechens also learned how the Soviet, and later Russian, military operates against insurgents. Over the years, the less effective fighters and commanders have either been killed in battle or located and eliminated by Russian security forces. Through a combination of overwhelming force and targeted killings of high-value targets, the Russian military and security forces have been able to effectively break the back of the militant insurgency in Chechnya. The militants' effort to expand the war to the neighboring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan in search of less dangerous operating environments provides an indication of the Russians' success in Chechnya. A significant threat remains, however, as the Chechen militants have shown an ability to conduct devastating terrorist attacks outside of Chechnya, particularly against soft targets. The breakdown on command and control at Beslan and the subsequent clumsy assault were similar to the 2002 storming of a Moscow theater held by Chechen militants. During that assault, in which gas intended to incapacitate the hostage-takers was used, 117 hostages and approximately 50 militants were killed. The findings of Torshin's commission, by contrast, have effectively exonerated the Russian security forces from mishandling the Beslan incident. This suggests that although Moscow may realize mistakes were made, little will be done to fix the problems that produced the confusion at Beslan. Given the large numbers of both militants and hostages involved and the tactical conditions on the ground, the Beslan situation would have challenged any counterterrorism force. Considering that the hostage-takers were on a suicide mission, a bloody outcome was inevitable. Nevertheless, handling the situation differently could have resulted in fewer casualties. The Dec. 28 report caps the third parliamentary investigation into the events of Sept. 1-4, 2004. The latest report seems to contradict elements of the earlier investigations, which found fault with the way Russian security forces on the scene handled the incident. Because the latest report found no errors with the way the security forces handled the incident at Beslan and recommended no disciplinary actions for those responsible, the report is unlikely to result in significant improvements in the Russians' hostage rescue procedures. Unless the Russian security forces implement changes in their hostage rescue procedures, future militant attacks similar to Belsan may therefore have equally bloody endings.

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