Militants have taken over a school in the Russian city of Beslan and are threatening to kill hostages — including children — if their demands are not met. The incident shows that the Chechen war is expanding in terms of tactics, intensity and — most of all — geographic scope.
Militants took over a school complex in Beslan, in the southern Russian republic of North Ossetia, on Sept. 1. After demanding the release of several compatriots held by Russian security, the militants threatened to kill 50 children for every one of their group killed by Russian forces. The school is surrounded by a mix of Russian military and local security forces. Some female militants were reported to be wearing bomb belts. Various sources place the total militant force at between 17 and 30 members. The Ossetians are one of the few Christian peoples in the Caucasus and have been staunch Russian allies as long as the Russians have been active in the region. Russia projects power from military facilities in North Ossetia — particularly the city of Mozdok, which is headquarters for Russian operations throughout the region, including Chechnya. Most air strikes against Chechen forces originate at a North Ossetian air base. Unsurprisingly, some of the Muslim people of the Caucasus — including Chechens to the east — view the Ossetians as Russian collaborators and themselves as occupied populations. There have been a number of bombing attacks against the province (although nothing that could be described as a bombing campaign) since the most recent Chechen war began in 1999. One attack included the bombing of a Mozdok hospital, which killed 20 people, primarily medical staff. The crisis at the Beslan school indicates three things. First, the incident shows al Qaeda's influence. Suicide bombers were not used at all in the 1994-1996 Chechen war. It was not until after foreign Islamist militants began to appear regularly in Chechnya in the period between wars that suicide bombers began to operate. Like everything else the Chechen militants did, they adopted the tactic to their own needs and environment. At the war's height, the Russians had more than 100,000 troops in the republic, and the militants needed every able-bodied fighter they could muster. Add in that the slightly mystic native version of Islam is considerably different from the militant Wahhabi strain the foreign Islamists attempted to import, and it is no surprise that the Chechens decided to use women whose brothers, husbands and sons had been killed by Russian forces instead of their own trained guerrillas for suicide missions. The first Chechen suicide attackers — called "Black Widows" by the Russians — used vehicle attacks against Russian forces (or the forces of pro-Russian Chechens) within Chechnya — and later against targets beyond Chechnya proper. Most recently, female Chechen suicide bombers are credited with the Aug. 24 twin airplane crashes near Rostov-on-Don and Tula, and the Aug. 31 bombing at a Moscow subway station Second, the large scale of the operation — there are supposedly at least 200 hostages — indicates the hand of experienced native Chechen militants such as Shamil Basayev. Field commanders like Basayev are notorious for their ability to launch bold raids against supposedly impregnable Russian positions within Chechnya or at civilian targets well beyond. Such attacks have included the October 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis — which Russian forces ultimately ended by pumping in a narcotic gas that killed more than 100 of the hostages — and the June 1995 Budyonnovsk hospital crisis. Basayev, who has since converted to the Wahhabi strain of Islam, is the personal epitome of the Chechens' ability to synthesize. It is a 1995 hospital attack — in which a group of Chechen militants traveled some 150 miles to Budyonnovsk and took an entire hospital hostage — that most parallels the Beslan crisis. That attack ended with the militants being escorted all the way back to Chechnya before they released the last of their hostages. That hostage-taking was the first in a sequence of major setbacks for Russian forces that led to the Russian government's eventual decision to pull troops out of Chechnya in 1996. Finally, the Beslan school situation shows the expansion of the Chechen war's geographical scope. This is not because the attack occurred beyond Chechnya; Chechen militants had carried out large-scale attacks beyond their home republic. For example, the 1999 war began when a mix of Chechen and foreign Islamic militants invaded Dagestan. The Chechen war has affected neighboring Ingushetia as well. Ingush participation in the war has been very low key, largely consisting of Chechen civilians fleeing to their ethnic Ingush cousins while the fighting in Chechnya raged. As the war ground on, the Ingush became more involved in helping pass information and supplies. The Beslan crisis represents a fundamental change in that relationship. That is because the attackers demanded the release of the 27 militants Russian forces captured in the aftermath of the June 2004 attacks against targets in Ingushetia. Most of those captured are natives of Ingushetia, not Chechnya. Sources in the Russian security community indicate that many of the attackers belong to Ingush Jaamat, a unit of Wahhabi forces in North Caucasus primarily composed of ethnic Ingushes. The Chechen war is no longer only Chechen and will never again be a local affair.