On 1 September 2004, hundreds of parents underwent a gruesome ordeal in what unarguably ranks as one of the most despicable terrorist attacks of all time. This is the story of the Beslan school massacre and Shamil Basayev, also known as the Osama Bin Laden of Russia.
Chechnya, a federal subject of Russia, has had a troubled history since the early 1900s. Historically, Chechens have rebelled several times against Soviet rule, but have always been suppressed by Moscow’s iron hand. The Chechen wars in the late 1990s resulted in a series of retaliatory terrorist strikes by Chechen rebels in mainland Russia, killing hundreds of innocent civilians. Basayev, a Chechen insurgent leader, had masterminded many of these killings, including the Moscow theatre attacks in 2002, which resulted in more than 170 deaths.
All over Russia, 1 September marks the start of the new school year, when children celebrate the “knowledge day” with their parents and teachers. At 9am on that day in 2004, when the festivities were in full swing at the school in Beslan, several dozen Chechen rebels armed with automatic weapons, explosives and suicide vests stormed in, and took over 1,100 hostages, including 777 children and infants.
The terrorists demonstrated their cruelty within minutes. Twenty men who they considered threats were lined up, shot in cold blood, and their bodies tossed out through the windows. Many were fathers, murdered in front of their children.
The terrorists then herded the hostages into the school’s gymnasium, where they were held for the next three days without food and water. The gym was rigged with three independent chains of explosives with multiple triggers, including the “dead-man’s switch”. This is a device that is kept pressed under the feet of a terrorist and is released if he is shot—a strong deterrence against a sudden attack by security forces. The terrorists stripped the hostages of clothes and mobile phones. They also smashed all windows of the school. Both these steps were lessons learnt from the Moscow theatre incident. In that instance, hostages had alerted security forces using their mobile phones, and the latter had pumped in a deadly gas into the theatre before storming it.
By the end of the first day, Russian security forces had cordoned off the Beslan school. But they found it difficult to manage the crowd of over 5,000 anxious parents and relatives of the hostages, many of whom were armed and wished to take matters into their own hands. The situation worsened on the second day. The terrorists’ demands—including total Russian withdrawal from Chechnya—were impossibly ambitious, and their ruthlessness was exacerbating the situation. Without food, medicines and even water, many hostages resorted to drinking their own urine and children began fainting. Meanwhile, Russian Special Forces, including the elite Alpha unit of the Spetsnaz, took up positions anticipating a storming operation.
The terrorists had been banking on the assumption that Russia’s president Vladimir Putin wouldn’t dare to put the children’s lives on the line—they were certain to be killed in horrendous numbers in any storming operation. The government, on the other hand, could not afford to give in to an act of terror because that could spark off a spate of similar attempts. Adding to the tension were hundreds of armed and increasingly desperate parents who began interfering in the operation. The memory of the Moscow attacks was still fresh, and many were afraid the rescue might be similarly botched.
Also, by the end of the second day, many of the terrorists’ who were high on drugs were undergoing withdrawal symptoms. They were becoming increasingly violent, threatening hostages and shooting at security forces. Negotiations, too, had broken down, with only a few infants and their mothers being released (one of them refused to leave her two other children behind).
On the third day, all hell broke loose. There are varying accounts of which side triggered the fateful explosion that led to a firefight. But by the end of it, 385 people were dead. Among them were over 180 children. After the three-day ordeal, many of the victims were too weak to even run to safety.
The Beslan massacre has lessons for countries that have to battle terror. First, attacking children demonstrated that terrorists could cross all boundaries. Second, many of the terrorists had no idea that they were going to be killing children; most were high on drugs, and paid scant regard to personal safety. Some of them had been personally affected by the Russian brutalities and were bent on revenge. In such cases, any anti-siege strategy that relies only on responding after the incident or on appealing to the humanity of the attackers through logic or negotiation is bound to fail.
There was, however, a silver lining to the tragedy. In Chechnya and across Russia, people were disgusted and outraged by the incident. Suicide attacks ceased for years. But that was because Chechen terrorism was a state-sponsored tool of waging war against Russia. Such a backlash would not deter non-state actors; it would, in fact, be their objective. Given the vulnerability of children and the potential to instigate blind rage by attacking them, it is an unfortunate reality that Beslan will probably not be the last of such incidents.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security
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