September 17, 2004
The terrorist operation in southern Russian school, that resulted in the slaughter of nearly 500 adults and children in early September, provided some glaring examples of good, and bad, leadership.
The terrorists were very well organized and led. Not only had they carefully scouted the school, but during renovations over the Summer, had had placed weapons and explosives under the floorboards of the renovated gymnasium. The 32 terrorists assembled a few kilometers from the school, changed into camouflage uniforms, put on face masks (to prevent identification by any surviving hostages who might escape) and used three vehicles to drive to the school. Once there, they quickly executed a well planned operation that captured some 1,500 students, teachers and parents who were their for first-day-of-school ceremonies. Several civilians, who resisted, were shot. About twenty civilians were killed or wounded during this part of the operation.
Some of the terrorists had second thoughts about taking so many children, especially young (under ten) ones, hostage. The leader of the terrorists operations killed one of his subordinates in order to maintain control. There were no further disciplinary problems. A video was made, showing the terrorists in control of over a thousand people. The video also contained the terrorist demands (freedom of terrorists captured in an attack on neighboring Ingushetia earlier in the year, and removal of nearly 100,000 Russian troops, police and officials from Chechnya.) The video quickly made its way to the Russian leadership in Moscow, probably via negotiators who spoke with some of the terrorists on September 2nd.
When the terrorists did not receive a prompt answer to their demands, they denied food and water to their hostages. This created much hardship for the hostages, especially the children. The temperature in the crowded gymnasium was over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This despite the windows all being opened (to make it difficult for the Russians to use sleeping gas, as they had done two years earlier in Moscow.) The terrorists had carefully thought out how to defend the school from possible attack. They wired the gymnasium with explosives, and put young children in all the windows, to discourage snipers.
Early on September 3rd, the terrorists allowed medical personnel to approach the school and remove dead bodies that had been lying there for two days. But about an hour after this operation, there was an explosion in the school. Apparently one, or more, of the explosive charges in the gymnasium went off. At this point, Russian troops began to advance on the school, and the terrorists promptly began executing a well rehearsed plan. A third of the terrorists began killing hostages, another third began firing on the approaching Russian troops, and the remainder changed into civilian clothes and began fleeing the school complex. Most of them made it, although all but three, who were captured, were hunted down and killed. Its possible one or two did get away.
Even though Chechen terrorists had pulled off operations like three times before, Russian response to the Beslan attack was uncoordinated and sloppy. The Interior Ministry soon had members of the OMON riot police/SWAT teams on the scene. But local police and armed civilians were already there. By the next day, hostage rescue commandos (Alfa and Vympel) from the Interior Ministry and FSB arrived. The problem was that no one appeared to be in control of all these forces. The cordon around the school was not complete, and was so close that it triggered exchanges of fire from the terrorists.
When the explosion occurred at 10 AM on September 3rd, Russian forces were not prepared. This despite the fact that having medical workers collecting bodies near the school buildings should have called for the government troops to be on high alert. When the explosion did occur, and some of the hostages began running from the building, police and armed civilians (some of whom had kin in the school), spontaneously responded to the terrorist fire from the school. But hostages were getting shot down in the cross fire. It took at least half an hour before the commandoes went in, and many went off without their body armor. As a result, the commandoes suffered 41 casualties (including eleven killed.)
Reports from the scene indicated confusion and lack of leadership and coordination between army, Interior Ministry and FSB organizations. Even president Putin publicly rebuked the people in charge, and promised reforms. But whoever the new leaders of the state security are, they have more than just planning and leadership problems. Perhaps the major failure in leadership is the prevalence of corruption in the lower ranks of the national police and armed forces. The terrorists knew that they could easily bribe their way past roadblocks or identity checks. As long as they made it look like they were smugglers or common criminals (and not terrorists), the cops would take the cash and wave them through.