Russia's post-Beslan counterterrorism reforms

Reforming a nation's security services is an inevitable consequence of large-scale terrorist incidents. The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York led to historic reforms of the US intelligence community, just as the explosions in Madrid led to the reorganisation of the Spanish secret services.

Russia is no exception. An attack by insurgents in Ingushetia in June 2004 and the capture of hostages in Beslan in September the same year coincided with a period of reform in the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministerstvo vnutrennikh del: MVD) and Federal Security Service (Federalnaya sluzhba bezopasnosti: FSB).

In the immediate aftermath of the Beslan seige, President Vladimir Putin ordered the reform of these departments, signing Decree 1167, which looked at "urgent measures to increase the efficiency of the fight against terrorism".

By July 2005, the structural reforms to the MVD and FSB were completed. However, the efficiency with which they are implemented remains an unknown question.

Counterterrorism responsibility

One of the first areas of change was how the war on terrorism was being managed. According to a 1998 statute, the FSB, MVD, Service of External Intelligence (Sluzhba vneshney razvedki: SVR), the Federal Protection Service (Federalnaya sluzhba okhrani: FSO) and the Ministry of Defence are all tasked with fighting terrorism.

However, the FSB, which has an anti-terrorism division that it inherited from the KGB, had the primary role in counterterrorism until July 2003, when the MVD became more heavily involved, taking over management of the Regional Operations Staff (Regionalny operativny shtab: ROSh) responsible for counterterrorist operations in the North Caucasus.

In August 2003, the MVD further strengthened its anti-terrorism capabilities with the creation of 'Centre T', which was integrated into the organised crime division. However, following the Beslan attack, the MVD's anti-terrorism role was further enhanced when the organised crime unit was reformed (GUBOP).

The situation was further confused, when following the MVD's takeover of the ROSh for the North Caucasus, it also took control of the Combined Group of Forces (Objedinennaya gruppirovka voysk: OGV) in the North Caucasus. As a result of these reforms, jurisdiction has become unclear and overlapping and co-ordination problems have reached a critical level.

Co-ordinating information

Every country that has suffered large-scale terrorist attacks in recent years has faced problems in co-ordinating the way the secret services and law-enforcement agencies gathered and analysed information about the preparation of attacks. Solving this problem is nearly impossible without the creation of a dedicated co-ordination structure. And this is something that has not happened in Russia.

In October 2004, Nikolay Patrushev, FSB director, told the Duma that a new co-ordination centre should be created to help bring together the different departments for the war on terrorism. This plan has yet to be realised.

By August 2004, the situation in the North Caucasus had become confused, with at least three divisions of the national FSB, as well as regional offices, military intelligence and MVD units all operating in the same area. There was little or no co-ordination between them. In November 2004, Dmitry Kozak, the presidential envoy to the North Caucasus, declared: "Within four years of functioning as a regional operations staff, its right and the responsibility have been regulated by nothing."

There were two attempts to fix this situation after Beslan. In November 2004, a new counterterrorist grouping was created that drew together the efforts of those FSB, MVD and Main Intelligence Directorate (Glavnoye razvedovatel'noye upravlenie: GRU) units carrying out operational searches in the region. However, the new structure is responsible for tactical (army) intelligence, not prosecutorial intelligence, which therefore does little to help defeat the terrorist cause.

A second attempt to solve the problem was the creation of a series of 12 operational management groups (Grupy operativnogo upravleniya: GrOU), which were launched in August 2004 for the North Caucasus region. Each is headed by a colonel from the MVD and act as direct management of military forces for the suppression of subversive and terrorist actions. Each GrOU includes conventional and special operations troops from the MVD and the ministries of defence and emergency.

Each GrOU head has the rank of deputy head of the regional anti-terrorist forces, thereby making them the second highest ranking official in the region after the governor in terms of combating terrorism. In the event of hostages being taken or insurgents making intrusions into Russian-held territory, the GrOU commander will automatically assume control and has the right to make decisions, independent of control from Moscow. As a result, for the first time in the history of the Russian hostage crises, the responsibility for addressing a crisis rested with regional rather than central authorities.

However, the GrOUs still suffer from the fact that they can only react to terrorist attacks, rather than actually preventing them. This was evident when insurgents attacked Nalchik in October 2005, leaving the GrOU of Kabardino-Balkaria desperately trying to respond to the situation.

Similarly, the concept of a local GrOU commander taking operational control does not always work in practice. While a GrOU was already in place in Northern Ossetia during the Beslan crisis, Valery Andreev, the local FSB chief, supervised the operations staff - overruling his GrOU counterpart.

During the attack on Nalchik, the GrOU commander was responsible for the situation for only four hours before being superseded by the commander of North Caucasian internal troops.

Terrorism prosecution reform

The FSB, MVD and GRU were making use of extrajudicial killings in the Chechen republic by September 2004. The GRU was conducting these operations with two Spetsnaz special forces brigades, termed East and West, which are comprised of ethnic Chechens. The primary role of both brigades is the liquidation of suspected insurgents and their work is held in high esteem by Moscow. In August 2004, Sergei Ivanov, Russian minister of defence, had met with the Spetsnaz commanders to declare his support and supply them with more advanced arms.

The FSB has two different structures engaged in this arena. First, the so-called Summary Special Groups (SSG), which consist of operatives from regional FSB divisions and soldiers from Spetsnaz troops from the MVD. Ten such groups were created in April 2002 to carry out special duties in the Chechen Republic. They are engaged in the liquidation of insurgents, operating independently from local FSB units. The FSB has also deployed elements of its Alpha units, which are tasked with assassination and who report to the FSB divisional command in Chechnya.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs also deploys liquidation groups from other Russian regions to gain combat experience. These so-called mobile groups operate in the Chechen Republic, but also in Dagestan and Ingushetia.

In May 2004, President Putin ordered the creation of a special unit to serve the Chechen president. The so-called "Kadyrov guards", as they were bodyguards of former Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, are assigned to the Chechen Ministry of Internal Affairs and serve a role similar to the SSG.

Following the attack by Chechen rebels on the city of Nazran, Ingushetia, in June 2004, the strategy of using force was expanded. Rashid Nurgaliev, Minister of Internal Affairs, also expanded the area of operations of the Kadyrov regiment. He said: "The regiment of special purpose of the MVD will actively counteract extremists outside the Chechen Republic, taking part in operations on destruction of terrorists in any Russian region". Kadyrov's regiment has taken full advantage of this broader authority, operating in Dagestan during 2004 and 2005.

Special divisions have also been employing new tactics, including the controversial 'countercapture' operations against families of accused terrorists. This term was publicly used for the first time by public prosecutor Vladimir Ustinov before the State Duma on 29 October 2004.

Legislatures have not approved the policy of countercapture, but it is being used. The first capture occurred in March 2004 when more than 40 relatives of Chechen field commander Magomed Hambiev were taken into custody. As a result, Hambiev surrendered to the federal authorities.

The second capture of relatives occurred during the siege in Beslan. Relatives of the wife of (now deceased) Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, including her father, were detained. Similarly, on 12 August 2005, Natasha Humadova, the sister of Chechen field commander Doku Umarov, was taken by the authorities.

The practice of 'countercapture' not only contradicts Russian legislation, but is also useless in terms of preventing acts of terrorism and resolving hostage crises. Countercapture is an act of intimidation and not a counte strategy. There is an implied threat to the people being held, and if it is not carried out, then the tactics will be ineffective in the future. If harm is inflicted on a largely 'innocent' group of 'hostages' taken by the government, the political implications will be disastrous.

Counterterrorist or counterguerrilla?

Russian authorities decided to place the internal troops of the MVD as the primary anti-terrorist force in the North Caucasus, with the likes of the GrOU now falling under their control. However, the internal troops have neither the experience nor the facilities to gather information and infiltrate terrorist groups.

Over the past year, there has been an expansion of new divisions of Internal troops in the MVD, the Ministry of Defence and the border services of the FSB in the North Caucasus. But these changes seem to have left the FSB regional divisions at the periphery of federal attention. However, the FSB has developed unique divisions which are far more likely to penetrate terrorist groups and preventing attacks in the region.

The Beslan hostage crisis has had only a limited impact on the reform of the security services. While the system for fighting terrorism has evolved in positive directions between 2004 and 2005 the system to prevent terrorism remains non-existent.

Explore our related content