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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
Dr Sandra Bell is head of the Homeland Security & Resilience Department at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence & Security Studies in London