Most Americans remember exactly where they were on September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers went down. 9/11 is now part of American national identity. However, few people know about the Russian equivalent: the Siege of Beslan School Number One, which happened on September 1, 2004.
On that fateful day in 2004, the first day of school in Beslan, Republic of North Ossetia (on the far western end of Russia) a group of Islamic terrorists (believed to number in the dozens from Chechen and Ingushtia), took over "School Number One", The number of hostages was estimated at 1200. During the next two days, hostages were shot, girls were allegedly raped and sodomized, and all hostages abused mentally and physically with denial of water and food.
By the time siege ended two days later, over 300 will die, more than half of them children, and several of Russia's elite counterterrorism operators among them including 3 commanders.
Repercussions are still happening today.
The attack came suddenly at 9:10AM. The terrorists came in two vehicles, dozens of heavily armed gunmen in green uniforms and black balaclava masks emerged from trucks bearing assault rifles and other equipment. At first, they acted normally, so civilians ignored them, thinking it was some sort of security exercise.
There were over 1500 civilians in the school at the time. Due to first day of school, and presence of many parents, the school was crowded. Teachers are meeting students and their parents, and presentations are being made.
Then gunmen spread out, fired into the air, and herded all civilians they can see into the school gymnasium a building that is 25 meters by 10 meters. Apparently they had scouted the location before. (Russian security forces claimed the terrorists scouted 3 schools in total before choosing this one.) During the confusion, some civilians hid and others managed to escape out the back. It is believed about 1200 hostages were taken, though a report in 2005 listed the hostages to be 1154. .
These terrorists came prepared, as they quickly confiscated every mobile phone and other communication device they do not control. They also smashed all the windows in the gym (or ordered hostages to smash them) so they will not be adversely affected by a gas attack (tactic used by Russian forces for the Moscow Theater siege in 2002). They hung bombs on a wire between the basketball hoops and repeatedly told the hostages that if the authorities attack, the bombs will be detonated, and they will all die. Improvised mines were rigged at all entrances and potential breach points for the counter-attack. There are reports that the terrorists may have hidden explosives and weapons caches in the school by disguising themselves as workers during the summer repairs.
Initial police response is to save as many outside the school as they could, but they were quickly driven back by a fusilade of gunfire.
All hostages are warned only to speak in Russian, and not to make a sound. A few buckets of water was initially provided when the weather turned extremely hot, and the gym has no air conditioning. However, no food was allowed, and only small groups are allowed to visit the toilet at once, always with escort. Several parents who tried to calm others in Ossetian were executed for violating the "Russian only" rule. Crying children were scared into silence by shots fired into the air, and additional threats to parents. When even babies started crying, the babies and mothers were moved to a different area.
Men were quickly separated from the group
Russian authorities quickly summoned forces and surrounded the school with up to 10000 troops and police by the end of the siege. Forces included police, regular army, Federal Security Bureau (FSB) troops including the elite anti-terrorism Alfa and Vympel groups, and Ministry of Internal Affairs troops (OMON).
Furthermore, up to 5000 armed locals, some in militia, others just concerned armed citizens, have also joined the perimeter before the siege's end. .
Terrorists then made demands... they want the Ossetian president to come negotiate with them. However, the on-scene commander, a FSB general, ordered the president to stay away. Initial official reports of the hostage numbers was listed at only about 400 or so, which enraged the terrorists. it was not certain if this mistake was deliberate or simply lack of good intel.
To demonstrate their resolve, twenty of the male hostages, previously separated from the main group, was shot dead, and bodies dumped outside.
Plans were made to negotiate with the terrorists and a mediator a pediatrician who had negotiated the release of children in the 2002 Moscow incident, was called in to help with the negotiations. However, FSB is also planning a military strike if negotiations fail, and the negotiators were not told about that.
Thus ended day one.
Negotiation proved to be unsuccessful. As a result, terrorists now deny water and food to all hostages. It was justified as a "hunger strike" (since terrorists didn't get any either) and blamed on the Russians, though it was also reported that later terrorists taunted the hostages with water.
The day proved to be another scorcher, and inside the gym, even with smashed windows, temperature is stifling and most children and adults removed as much clothing as practical.
In the afternoon, terrorists allowed a former general to enter the school to negotiate release fo some hostages. 11 nursing mothers and 15 babies were released, though some were forced to leave their older children behind. A video tape demand from the terrorists was given to the general, containing demand for Chechen independence from the alleged group leader Besayev. The tape was turned over to the authorities, and was promptly "lost", and the Russians initially denied receiving such demands (claiming the tape was "empty"). It was much later that the tape was rediscovered.
The terrorists are believed to have taken amphetamines and possibly other narcotics, to stay awake and ward off pain (Russian autopsies later claimed to confirmed the presence of heroin and amphetamines in the terrorists bodies). Drug withdrawal plus heat, fatigue and lack of food and sleep made them increasing unstable, hysterical, and cruel. Alleged abuse started to happen. Rape and sodomy of girls were reported but difficult to confirm.
At 3:30PM, two grenades were fired at the perimeter by the terorrists, destroying one of the police cars on the perimeter. Authorities did not react. It is believed that some Russian commandos from their elite Alfa unit may have recon'ed the perimeter, but was driven back by sniper fire. Civilians at the perimeter, some armed, was pointing out the buildings and features to the Russian soldiers, but no one dared to shoot for fear of provoking the terrorists.
Elsewhere, several negotiators are seeking alternative resolution to the crisis. Some have reached out to Chechen leaders, while others sought volunteers to take place of the hostages. Reports exist that claimed they were promised safe passage and will arrive at 3PM the next day.
A Russian police was hit during the night probably from a ricochet.
Thus ended Day two.
Day Three started calmly enough, though the terrorists are acting increasingly irrational Hostages reported that they have smashed the handles in the restrooms to prevent people from drinking the water. Some have went as far as drinking from the toilet bowl but the terrorists stopped that too.
Negotiators were able to convince terrorists to allow 2 ambulances, with only a few doctors, to approach the school. However, as the bus approached the school just after 1 PM, an explosion was heard, then less than half minute later, two more explosions rocked the gym. Then someone started firing.
No one can agree what caused the explosions. Some say the terrorist leader hit his override remote trigger on two terrorists wearing suicide belts to prevent a coup when the two balked at hurting children. Some say it was an accidental detonation when a bomb, taped to a wall, fell and detonated. Others say a terrorist tripped on a wire. Others claimed the Russian forces attacked first with a volley of rocket propelled grenades. However, it doesn't matter. The result is complete bedlam. Each side thinks the other side betrayed them.
One of the terrorist leaders was on the radio negotiating when it all went downhill. He said "while I negotiate with you in good faith the Russians are storming the place. You have betrayed me and the deaths will be on your head. "
One of the explosions ripped a hole in the gym wall, and some of the children dashed into the open. Terrorists opened fire on the children, and all the Russian troops on the perimeter realized all plans are useless now, as they have no choice but the rush the building and fire as they go. Snipers started to engage any terrorists they can see, while the elite "Alfa" and "Vympel" operators, simply rushed out of their ready rooms with their weapons and rushed the perimeter and kill as many terrorists and save as many hostages as they can at the cost of their lives, with no plans at all.
Most of the hostages were weakened by the heat, plus lack of food and water. As a result, many are too weak to move, or even if they could, have been scared stiff by two days of mental torture.
To add to the confusion, hundreds of civilians, many armed, also rushed the school when the perimeter broke down, to either help fight the terrorists, or to rescue the children. Russian forces fought bloody room to room battles with the terrorists, who had almost three days to prepare the place with booby traps. The result is tremendous casualties. Terrorists also used some hostages as human shields. Russian forces tried to cover their assault with tanks and armored personnel carriers, but the fighting was brutal, and bodies everywhere.
It is believed that a dozen terrorists got away in the confusion, though this is impossible to confirm. They were spotted in a different building and it was leveled by repeated tank cannon fire and other attacks. More ran out the back toward the railways, and was pursued by helicopters, Russian troops, and some armed civilians.
Casualties started to mount up, and the local system was completely overwhelmed. There was not enough ambulances to carry the wounded and and a call was sent out for volunteer civilian cars, anything to help carry the casualties, and this is with gunfire still in the background, as terrorists are still giving ground only reluctantly, from room to room, leaving booby traps in their wake. The only two fire engines in town cannot handle the fire that is engulfing the gym roof. Eventually some casualties were transported to the capital of North Ossetia, hours away. The local hospital have not enough equipment and personnel for mass casualties like this.
The fighting continued into the night. When the last few terrorists are cornered in the basement and had to be "dug out" by assault troops, and tank was called in to blast them out.
All three commanders of the elite counter terrorism units died in the assault. A dozen others were believed to have been killed in the operation as well, though official figures vary somewhat. Dozens of operators were wounded. The elite Alfa and Vympel units was severely mauled.
The final tally of casualties among the hostages varied as well. Official count is 354, but there were almost 200 unidentified bodies, some burned beyond recognition.
One terrorist was captured and survived to stand trial. Another captured was lynched on the spot by the angry mob.
President Vladimir Putin came to visit and ordered all services to pursue the terrorists and arrest those responsible. The only captured survivor underwent vigorous interrogation later stated they were not given the target until they are just outside of town, and the terrorists were Chechen and Ingush, all Muslims.
Putin used this incident to strengthen the Federal government of Russia and increased political crackdowns. He even suggested that some of the terrorists may be Arabs, so the incident may not be about the Chechens at all. Clearly he was implying that Al Qaeda may be partly responsible.
On September 14, 2004, Shamil Besayev, leader of a splinter group from the Chechen rebels, claimed responsibility. He claimed his martyr brigade carried out the operation, and also claimed responsibility for several other attacks, and blamed the Russians for their bloodthirstiness to end the crisis at all costs. However, he was soon "disowned" by the main group of Chechen rebels, who called the crisis "a blasphemy" for which "no justification exists". The rebel leader Maskhadov claimed the splinter group was driven insane by Russian oppression, and offered to negotiate a peaceful end. Putin responded by putting a $10 million bounty on both Maskhadov and Besayev, declared there will be no negotiation with terrorists, and compared attempts at negotiation to "appeasing Hitler [before WW2]".
Racial tension against Ingush and Chechen residents in other parts of Russia were at an all time high. A mob attacked a former Soviet Cosmonaut because his name sounded Ingush.
Investigations immediately started on how could such a tragedies have happened, and Russian authorities gathered up every last body of terrorists they can find and autopsied every last one of them. The surviving terrorist was also vigorously interrogated, and later, tried and sentenced to death, though due to Russian moratorium on death penalty, was commuted to life in prison without possibility of parole. He entered the prison system and was not heard from since.
In the next few years, Russian commandos and possibly assassins struck down or arrested several of those believed to be responsible for the attack. Besayev died in July 2006 under mysterious circumstances. The Chechen leader who disowned Besayev, Maskhadov, died in a Russian raid in 2005. Several other alleged organizers, including several Arabs with alleged al-Qaeda ties, was arrested in 2005 and 2006 in various locations.
Parliamentary Commission on the Beslan Crisis
Similar to the US 9/11 Commission, a parliamentary commission in the "Dumas" (lower house) investigated the crisis, and issued an official report in late 2006, claiming that the terrorists started the final shootout, not the authorities, and put the number of terrorists at 33. It pinned most of the blame on North Ossetian police for not stopping the terrorists, but also criticized the administration for under-reporting the number of hostages
The report was criticized by at least one parliamentary member and several outside critics to be a whitewash, meant to close the investigation instead of opening it. This opposition member, a noted firearms and explosive expert, claimed the Russian forces fired rocket propelled grenades (possibly armed with thermobaric warheads) at the school as a part of initial attack even while negotiations are ongoing.
Beslan Crisis Conspiracy Theories
Due to the huge number of inconsistencies, and confusing conclusion, many conspiracy theories have surfaced about the Beslan crisis.
One of the most interesting ones was a claim that at least one of the terrorists is actually an undercover FSB officer who was trying to goad the group into attacking a target near the North Ossetia capital, and where authorities are waiting for them. There are reports that some roadblocks were removed to allowed the terrorist group into Ossetia. The terrorist leader Besayev actually claimed this outright, but this cannot be proved... or disproved, as the alleged undercover agent's dead, Besayev's dead, and FSB is not talking.
Another interesting theory ties into how several of the terrorists were previously identified as deceased, or were released from prison only weeks before the Beslan Crisis. An FSB defector, Litvinenko, claimed the operation was a "false flag" operation mounted by undercover FSB operatives who hired several of these mysteriously released prisoners for the attack, to allow Putin to consolidate his power. This ties into claims from some hostages that some equipment and weapon was already stashed inside the school, pointing to an "inside job".
Furthermore, several journalists were "coincidentally" prevented from reaching Beslan to cover the crisis from their own angles. One noted journalist was somehow involved in a brawl at the airport with two thugs and was sentenced to 15 days in jail. Another, a reporter for Al Jazeera in Russia, was somehow found to possess one round of ammunition, clearly a contraband, while attempting to board a flight. Yet another investigative reporter was turned away from the airport twice. When she finally got on, she slipped into a coma only to awake a week later. She was believed to have been poisoned. (The same reporter was later assassinated in 2006.) Other journalists from around the world, including US, Germany, and so on, was allowed to arrive in Beslan but harassed and some have materials confiscated, leading to further speculation of a cover-up.
The actual number of terrorists was also a big area of debate. Some estimates go as high as up to 76 terrorists. However, accurate count was not possible.
While Russia is no stranger to terrorism, this one was a botched job all around, despite the best intentions of the soldiers on the tip of the spear. The failure starts on the top and trickles down.
However, it serves as a lesson to all... terrorists are not sane, and they can cause tremendous amount of damage, even to children, DELIBERATELY.
Terrorism must be fought, in whatever form.
If terrorism comes to your town, will you know what to do?
kschang (author) from San Francisco, CA, USA on September 30, 2014:
Thanks for the clarification. Got any source for that? Reports were conflicted and confusing and there were blames all over the place Conspiracy theories abound. Though usually, Occam's razor applies... the simplest explanation (they brought all of it with them) is probably the most likely explanation.
Travis Wakeman on May 21, 2014:
You have the bit about hidden weapons all wrong. The theory was that a group of contractors from Ingushetia had been used for reconstruction and had planted explosives under the floor of the library.
If you look through the witness testimony though, you'll see that they were punching holes in the floor and dropping grenades down them to break up the floor so that they couldn't get attacked from a tunneling operation from the nearby sewer.
The GAZ-66 truck that most of the 35 militants came in on was plenty large enough to carry all of the armaments that they brought in with them.
hansonarticles on May 03, 2012:
very, very interesting and tragic of course. great write up.
RTalloni on September 12, 2011:
So glad to come across this post. It's important for the truth about these events and the issues they highlight to be published. Your closing is noteworthy--we do need to be as prepared for an emergency as possible. We should not live in fear, though. We should learn the lessons, and we should look to the Lord according to His Word. I know many will laugh at this thought, but it does not change the truth.
Voted this post up, and I expect to refer to it in the future.