Beslan terror tactics lie under the microscope

Until the time on 3 September that a handful of terrified half-naked children escaped School Number One in Beslan and fled for their lives, nearly everything about the hostage siege had pointed to a long and protracted negotiation period. However, at that instant, those closest to the situation could see that the hostage takers’ only aim was to capture the world’s attention for as long as possible by committing an atrocity against innocent children.

Those outside the school - Russian police, army, security forces, hostage negotiators and armed parents of the children held hostage - then had only a short time in which to react. Two courses of action were available: on the one hand, they could have seized the opportunity to try to rescue as many hostages as possible, knowing that they were ill-prepared and that the building in which they were being held was heavily booby-trapped; or they could have adopted a more passive stance, hoping that their analysis of the situation was wrong.

They chose the first course of action. Although the resultant casualty count was high, this must be set against the fact that had the Russians not stormed the school when they did, the terrorists inside the school would probably have killed and injured far more children.

There were six ominous signs that the Beslan siege would not end peacefully:

  • e were too many hostages. Although initial reports said that there were approximately 350 hostages, as the siege progressed it became clear that the number of hostages was probably in excess of 1,500. Managing 1,500 well organised people in a ‘normal’ environment is not easy; controlling 1,500 scared young children and parents, kept in a confined space and deprived of food, water and medicine, would be harder still.
  • Levels of stress among the terrorists and hostages inside the school gymnasium must have been considerable - hardly a situation that any professional hostage taker would plan for. The noise level alone would prevent the clear thought required for negotiation. However, the hostage takers had executed the initial part of their plan professionally. They entered the school at precisely the right time and the speed and effectiveness of this entry demonstrated that they knew what were doing and had made meticulous preparations for the operation.

    The hostage takers would have known that managing 1,500 or more hostages was impossible for any length of time. This indicates that they never had any intention of keeping the hostages as a bargaining tool; on the contrary, their intention was to incarcerate, psychologically abuse and then kill a large number of innocents, the better to capture the attention of the world.

  • hostages were on familiar territory. Holding a group of resourceful (and increasingly desperate) hostages, many of whom knew each other well and were familiar with their immediate environment, would not have been ideal for the hostage takers. In such a situation, those being held hostage already operate as a team and will attempt to find any escape routes.
  • On the other hand, instigating a hostage crisis at a community school was an attractive option for the terrorists if their aim was not to secure hostages for any length of time but rather to stage a mass killing of children in order to gain world attention. With the Beslan massacre the terrorists decimated a community and told the world that schools are targets of terror.

  • hostages were denied food, water and medicine. If the hostage takers at Beslan were prepared to negotiate, it was in their interests to allow food and water to be delivered to the gymnasium. It is possible to survive for some time without food but not without water. The hostage takers’ denial of such basic requirements was perhaps the biggest single ominous sign but, viewed in isolation, it could have meant that negotiations had not yet reached the level of trust required for the hostage takers to accept supplies.
  • However, when viewed in parallel with the other signs, it is clear that depriving the hostages of food, water and medicine was a cynical attempt to maintain world interest by abusing the hostages.

    The final three signs came within a matter of minutes of each other - and would have represented a clear sign of the extent of the horror to come to anyone who had any doubts about the outcome of the siege:

  • vity among the hostages. Some of the parents among the hostages made the agonising decision to help their children to escape, aware that they might die in the process. No parent would have taken this risk with their child’s life unless they truly believed that this was their only hope for survival.
  • hostage takers shot to kill the escapees. With an already unmanageable number of hostages, it would have made no sense for hostage takers seeking a peaceful resolution to shoot at the escapees, thereby risking the process of negotiations. The terrorists might have shot at the children because they knew that this would ensure press attention; or they could have fired the first shots in what they intended to be a deadly endgame. More probable still is that the terrorists knew that the forces surrounding the school would provide covering fire for the children; in this way the Russian military could be blamed for starting the shooting.
  • For any observer at Beslan who feared that the terrorists wanted to kill as many children as possible, there was one more revealing piece of evidence.

  • hostage takers blew the roof off the gymnasium in trying to escape. This would have been the best way to ensure considerable casualties among the children; the terrorists detonated explosive charges dangling from the ceiling in the full knowledge that it would also kill some of their number. If the hostage takers truly wanted to pursue a long-term strategy of negotiation, then they would have tried to escape without causing casualties. Instead, the terrorists exploded the roof of the gymnasium knowing that this would strengthen Russia’s refusal to negotiate.
  • Dr Sandra Bell is head of the Homeland Security & Resilience Department at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence & Security Studies in London

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