The Beslan School Massacre: A Threat with No Easy Solutions

“We offer you a sensible peace based on mutual benefit by the principle ‘independence in exchange for security.’” Ruslan Tagirovich Khuchbarov, “The Polkovnik”

Ruslan Tagirovic Khuchbarov, also known as “The Polkovnik” (Russian for “Colonel”), was the leader of the Chechen takeover – and the subsequent massacre of 396 students, parents, and teachers – of Beslan School Number 1 in the first week of September 2004.  His “offer,” quoted above, to local authorities demonstrates the common terrorism strategy of threatening the public and offering a false security in exchange for nonviolence. The standard official response, “not negotiating with terrorists,” was used by Russian authorities and the conflict ended tragically. At 396 deaths, the Beslan School Massacre was the second most successful al Qaeda terrorist attack after the terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001.

The United States itself has spent little time or effort, unfortunately, in learning to cope with this type of event.  Despite the Chechen attacks in 2002 against a Moscow theater (160 deaths), the Budyonnovsk hospital attack in 1995 (105 deaths), the Mumbai financial district attacks in 2008 (179 killed), and Beslan, preparations for a suicidal attack-hostage crisis of similar magnitude have received little attention in the United States and almost no funding.  

The attack on Beslan School Number 1 started not long after daybreak on 1 September 2004, the first day of school, when 25 or so members of the Chechen resistance, along with at least two known al Qaeda members associated with the Finsbury Mosque in London, mixed into the crowd of students, parents, and teachers. Only the terrorists knew, of course, that, after repairs had been completed on the school during the previous summer, workers affiliated with the terrorists and/or sympathetic to their cause had hidden a number of weapons under floors and behind walls in the school. After mixing with the crowd going into the school, the Chechen attackers quickly retrieved the weapons and took 1,300 students, parents, and teachers hostage.  

Ambiguous Reports and a Lethal Conflagration

All of the able-bodied men in the hostage group were taken to a courtyard and immediately executed; the remaining hostages were herded into the school’s gymnasium, which was rigged with a series of incendiary bombs.  A “dead man’s switch” was used as a potential triggering device – i.e., a terrorist remained standing on a contact plate switch during the entire episode. If a rescue attempt was mounted, or if a sniper shot the terrorist, the contact would be broken when the “switch” terrorist serving as the contact either stepped off or fell off the plate, and the bombs would be detonated. 

By the early dawn of 2 September Russian authorities had taken over from the local police, and the Russian “Alpha Team” (a special forces unit) was in command.  Negotiations broke down after issuance of Khuchbarov’s “independence for security” threat.  On the third day, 3 September, the terrorists detonated the bombs – either after a rescue attempt or perhaps intentionally (the official reports are somewhat ambiguous on this point).  The resultant fire killed 344 hostages including 186 children, eight police officers and civilian bystanders, two emergency workers, and 11 members of the Alpha Team.

In addition, 437 hostages, including 221 children, were injured; many of them were suffering from burns, others from “crush injuries” (and subsequent limb amputations) caused by structural collapse, and some of them lost one or both eyes (hit by flying debris).

At least 19 attackers also were killed in what appears, in hindsight, to have been an intentional suicide attack.  By the time the incendiary bombs were detonated, there were two ambulances on the scene as well as one fire truck (without water), but there had been little if any realistic preparedness efforts ordered or ongoing to deal with the flood of victims about to arrive at local hospitals.  

Physical and Political Implications for U.S. Planners

The motivation for the Chechen attackers was similar in some respects to the anti-American motivations of al-Qaeda and similar groups – namely, to avenge Russia’s alleged oppression of Muslims. Beslan is a relatively small city in the predominantly Christian province of North Ossetia not too far north of the border between northwestern Iran and northeastern Turkey.  Although the conflict in Chechnya was well known in Beslan, the attackers took advantage of the school’s “open campus” atmosphere and relatively lax security.  By hiding the weapons ahead of time, and attacking on the first day of classes, the Beslan terrorists were able to mix in with the parents, teachers, and other visitors and to avoid a possible interdiction of the attack later in the school year.

The ability of the United States to mount an effective response to a Beslan-like attack, almost anywhere in the country, is at best limited. U.S. schools are relatively open elements of society, including casual visitors, usually do not require cards, and, because they are intended for learning, designed to make it easy for a large number of children to be gathered together in group settings. Most American schools host a number of sporting events, concerts, plays, and assemblies – any of which could quickly be transformed into a potentially nightmarish security situation.  Moreover, because so many school districts face limited funding, and are preoccupied with federal and state accountability mandates, school officials focus their attention, and financial resources, on meeting instructional objectives. School security, therefore, although important, is secondary to the school’s principal mission.

Most U.S. school districts have developed and promulgated notional “Safety Response” plans, usually developed in cooperation with local law-enforcement and emergency-response agencies. Many of these same school districts also have created official safety-response teams, which meet from time to time both to review and update their response plans and, less often, to hone their response capabilities to cope with certain pre-planned exercise scenarios.

Few if any U.S. school districts, however, have any experience – even in the exercise scenarios – in coping with a full-blown terrorist attack similar to the Beslan attack. This rather glaring omission may be due, at least in part, to the psychological disposition of most school personnel. Educators and school administrators are (or at least are supposed to be) “nurturing” by nature and therefore not usually wired to think like attackers.  

Theoretically, at least, this makes them less sensitive than they perhaps should be to exposing children to the possibility that a massive Beslan-type attack actually could occur in the United States itself. Putting it another way: Educators tend to protect students from thoughts that could frighten them, and that tendency is reinforced when statistics show that it is highly unlikely that U.S. school buildings could and/or would be attacked.  Therefore, a built-in psychological vulnerability exists.

The Columbine and Virginia Tech Exceptions

On the other hand, most U.S. school officials are particularly cautious in discussing the possibility that schools might be susceptible to attacks by an individual terrorist.  Most if not all current school district plans are primarily focused, therefore, for “Columbine”-type attacks, or attacks by a single gunman, as at Virginia Tech. To prepare for a larger-scale terrorist attack, school officials would be well advised to consider the development of plans that include the use of a “scatter and rally” strategy (which would require students to run from the building if an attack has started and/or seems evident, and regroup later at one or more pre-designated rally points).

Although implementing such a strategy might save a number of lives, school districts are currently unable – for a number of reasons – to practice scatter-and-rally drills in a real-life setting. First, the risk of losing students and/or exposing them to the dangers of being unsupervised during such a drill is significant. Younger students could get confused and panic. Moreover, many parents – who are often critical of schools even for practicing simple lockdown procedures – would have an even more difficult time supporting the scatter-and-rally drills. Even if parents did support practicing such drills, they still would demand that the schools provide them with detailed information about the drills – but releasing that information would expose the specifics of the plan to potential attackers.  

In addition – partly to save on construction costs, partly for other good and practical reasons – many if not all U.S. school buildings, particularly those in major metropolitan areas, are two or three stories high, not including the basement. Obviously, multi-story schools usually could not rely on a scatter-and-rally strategy if the school’s first floor has already been secured by attackers.

There also are certain political and legal problems that must be resolved. To begin with, U.S. schools are almost by definition “weapons-free” zones. In addition, school personnel (except, in some school systems, security guards) cannot legally arm themselves – and even if they could they usually would lack the training needed to stop a terrorist attack without endangering the children (and, probably, the faculty).  The quickest response, almost always, would have to come from trained professionals – who, of course, would not be able to respond until after an attack group had already taken over the school. This last problem would be especially true in more rural areas.

Applying the Lessons Learned from the Beslan Attacks

The best predictor of future behavior is past performance. As the incidents cited earlier prove, combining a suicidal attack with the taking of a large number of hostages multiplies the terrorists’ motives, and results, by ensuring additional media coverage of what could be an extended siege. The terrorist demands also would receive considerably more publicity.

The United States would be particularly vulnerable to the same terrorist strategy because its primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, commercial centers, and leisure-time venues are quite literally open targets.  With all due consideration given to the potential detonation of a terrorist nuclear bomb and other homeland-security planning scenarios designed to protect high-visibility and/or critical-infrastructure targets, American counter-terrorism planners should also evaluate and plan for the simpler but easier and perhaps more effective attacks against less obvious targets.  

The simplistic response to this dilemma would be to create a perimeter-control or “Fortress America” strategy, similar perhaps to what Israel has had to do.  The problem with this strategy is that it never could be completely effective, even in Israel’s relatively homogeneous society. The Israeli people may not like it, but they accept, as a fact of modern life, the presence of armed teams of security personnel on school property and at school events. The application of the same type of security concepts to the American melting pot would be less easily accepted and therefore would also be less effective.  

Response planning or “target-hardening” might be a more useful strategy to consider.  The development of a scatter-and-rally strategy – when combined with total-lockdown strategies for schools, universities, and other educational facilities – might be particularly useful.  Terrorist hostage-takers rely on a combination of: (a) total surprise; and (b) their own ability to quickly collect and control hostages in a confined area.  The development of a rapid, random, and frequently practiced scatter strategy – with carefully defined and predesignated points for the re-collection of students – could be a useful counter-strategy against a Beslan-type attack. Here it should be noted that at least 50 potential hostages escaped from School Number 1 by running away immediately, as individuals or in small groups, in the early moments of the 2004 attack.  

The community under attack obviously must be well organized for the large-scale response needed.  An attack on the Beslan scale, or the several simultaneous attacks last year on several pre-designated targets in Mumbai, would be a major challenge for even the most experienced ICS (Incident Command System) leader.  The lack of fire-suppression capabilities and the failure of Beslan officials to prepare their own hospital resources faster and more effectively probably added significantly to the death count. Many victims who had not been injured by the initial blast and attack were injured in the subsequent fire and/or the rescue melee that ended the incident. Other victims, suffering from survivable injuries, died because of the lack of a well organized and adequately prepared medical response.  

To quickly summarize: The global patterns of suicidal, hostage-taking attacks have shown a trend of increasing success for the terrorists that has not been given adequate attention by American planners. Such attacks are relatively low in cost for the terrorists, extremely dramatic in their effect, and almost always successful in focusing world attention on the demands of the terrorist group involved.  Until successful detection and counter-strategies can be developed, terrorist groups will have little incentive to change.  The cost of not preparing for suicidal hostage-taking attacks will therefore serve as an open invitation to terrorists to launch even more such attacks in the future.  

Patrick D. Bird

Dr. Patrick Bird is a superintendent of schools in Michigan and holds a PhD in educational administration from Iowa State University.  He also is an adjunct professor at Saginaw Valley State University, where he teaches graduate courses in leadership theory and personnel management.  He also serves on a local emergency planning and response team and has managed a number of school crises in urban, suburban, and rural schools in Texas, Iowa, and Michigan.

Michael Allswede

Dr. Allswede is the Director of the Strategic Medical Intelligence Project on forensic epidemiology. He is the creator of the RaPiD-T Program and of the Pittsburgh Matrix Program for hospital training and preparedness. He has served on a number of expert national and international groups on preparedness.



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