Lessons Learned from the Nord-Ost Terrorist Attack in Moscow from the Standpoint of Russian Security and Law Enforcement Agencies
Yevgeny A. Kolesnikov*
Russian Federal Security Service
It was not today or even yesterday when terrorism arose as a social phenomenon. Political terrorism became an international problem at the start of the twentieth century. While the activities of extremists were previously of a targeted nature, in our times they have victimized not only state leaders and prominent public and religious figures but also completely random citizens, and in most cases the terror strikes have been directed against these very individuals.
The tragic events that occurred in Moscow on October 23, 2002, represent one link in the chain of acts committed by international terrorists. At 9:05 p.m. that day, an armed band of terrorists headed by the Chechen field commander Movsar Baraev seized the Palace of Culture of the Moscow Ball-Bearing Factory, where a performance of the musical Nord-Ost was under way. There were more than 900 people in the building, including theater personnel.1
This act may be placed in the same category as crimes committed by members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other international terrorist organizations in the United States, Indonesia, and various countries of the Middle East. There is no doubt that this act represents the latest manifestation of international terrorism in its most extreme form and should be viewed as a blow against the entire international security system, affecting the interests of all civilized states. The true goal of the act was to harm the territorial integrity and security of the Russian Federation.
At 9:30 p.m. on October 23, 2002, dispatch services of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and internal affairs agencies received reports that a group of terrorists had seized a large number of hostages at the Moscow Cultural Center of
the State Ball-Bearing Factory, located at 7 Melnikov Street. At 9:35 p.m., after the reports were checked and verified, an alarm went out to special services personnel. Information on the seizure of the hostages was relayed to the president of the Russian Federation, the heads of federal ministries and agencies, and the Moscow city authorities.
In order to handle the situation and coordinate efforts to free the hostages, an operational headquarters was established, including representatives of the FSB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the Ministry of Defense, city administrative and management agencies, the Committee on Health Protection, and other specialists in rendering urgent aid in extreme situations.
On orders from the operational headquarters, heightened security was put in place around official government buildings and critically important elements of the city’s infrastructure. Law enforcement units, special operational response detachments, personnel from the Ministry of Emergency Situations, and emergency medical and fire brigades were deployed in the area of the tragedy. The area was surrounded by police forces and MVD troops.
In accordance with plans that had been developed, forces from specialized detachments in the area deployed a mobile command center. A round-the-clock communications channel was established to exchange information with representatives of law enforcement agencies and special services of foreign states accredited in Moscow, which had provided detailed information on their countries’ citizens who were among the hostages as well as offers of practical and technical assistance. Regularly scheduled briefings were organized for these partners.
Working under severe time constraints, the operational headquarters had to take many varied aspects of the situation into account. Thus, as new information was coming in about the circumstances surrounding the hostage taking and the situation inside the building, efforts were simultaneously under way to prepare action plans for various scenarios under which events could develop.
Already on October 23, the operational headquarters was informed of the existence of a facility identical to the Cultural Center of the Ball-Bearing Plant (the Meridian movie theater), and special assault units of the FSB Special Operations Center (SOC) began training exercises there. As a result of these exercises, on October 25, commanders of the operations units of the SOC outlined an overall concept for the military/law enforcement component of a possible special operation, developed various options for storming the building, and coordinated the details of cooperation with the various groups involved. They then informed the operational headquarters that they were standing ready to conduct the operation.
Meanwhile, the operational headquarters was also taking measures aimed at freeing the hostages by other means. International experience in conducting such operations has shown that although storming a building is, as a rule, extremely
effective, it very often entails threats to the hostages’ lives. Therefore, storming the building was not seen as the only option for resolving the situation. The preferred method, which could produce positive results under certain conditions, was to remove the terrorists from the building through negotiations. The plan was to gradually improve the situation for the hostages and then either force the terrorists to completely or partially give up their demands or neutralize them so that they presented the least possible risk to the captive citizens.
With that in mind, the negotiation process was initiated with the terrorists by means of the hostages’ mobile telephones. The terrorists’ demands were learned, and an understanding was reached regarding the parties with whom the terrorists were prepared to negotiate. Telephone contacts maintained with the hostages also made it possible to obtain information about what was happening in the concert hall on a real-time basis. To develop a scenario of what had occurred, individuals who had witnessed the seizure of the building were questioned on orders from the operational headquarters. Members of the Duma and representatives of public organizations and the media were included in the process of negotiations with the terrorists.2 As a result of the negotiations, several groups of hostages were freed, including children less than 10 years of age.
From the first hours of the tragedy, the special services units involved took measures to assist the hostages. For instance, at 11:40 p.m. on October 23, during a reconnaissance of the perimeter of the theater complex, a metal door was discovered leading to a nightclub in the complex. Cries for help could be heard coming from inside. Following appropriate safety precautions, the door was opened, and about 40 people were freed from the building. During a search of basements, roofs, and the interior courtyard of the complex, three more escaped hostages were found. An SOC officer was wounded in a shoot-out with the terrorists while covering two women who had jumped from the second story of the Cultural Center. Overall, 113 people were freed by various means before the building was stormed.3
Officers from the screening group questioned the freed hostages and the individuals who had served as intermediaries in the negotiations. In particular, it was established that the terrorists were actively using methods of psychological pressure on the hostages and their relatives outside the building that had been seized. By telephone the terrorists were demanding that the relatives organize and conduct protest demonstrations in Moscow calling for the removal of federal troops from the Chechen Republic and the granting of independence to Chechnya. Out of fear for their loved ones, the relatives of the hostages were forced to attend those demonstrations.
Furthermore, to ensure their control over the situation in the concert hall, the terrorists used well-known psychological tactics by which some hostages characteristically begin to experience feelings of gratitude towards their captors under periods of stress despite the harsh treatment they are receiving. Thus, the hostages were for a long time deprived of food, water, and the ability to move
around in the hall and were subjected to humiliations in performing essential natural functions. According to the estimations of health care specialists, hypodynamia, exhaustion, and dehydration had set in, with these conditions being capable of producing lethal consequences. The goal of these inhuman actions on the part of the terrorists was to subjugate the will of the hostages.
Based on information coming in from various sources, a map was drawn showing the placement of the terrorists and hostages and the locations where explosive devices had been set. From an analysis of the information received during the range of search, tactical, organizational, and technical operations that were carried out, the following scenario emerged. About 1,000 hostages were being held by a group of 35–40 terrorists in the auditorium of the Cultural Center. Two powerful explosive devices had been placed in the center of the hall and on the balcony, and mines had been placed on the stage and aimed into the auditorium. Some 15–18 female suicide bombers wearing belts with explosive devices were deployed around the perimeters and in the center of the seating area.
Terrorists armed with automatic weapons and grenades were located on the stage and in the balconies. Powerful explosive devices had possibly been placed under the weight-bearing structural supports of the building. The bandits had established observation posts and fire points in technical and maintenance areas on the second and third floors, making it impossible for tactical groups to make a covert entry into the Cultural Center building. In the opinion of explosives specialists, the simultaneous detonation of the explosive devices would have led to the complete destruction of the building and the certain deaths of all the hostages and tactical team members (more than 1,000 people).
It should also be noted that the number of victims could have been twice as high. There were 17 buildings in the restricted zone around the Palace of Culture alone. Of them, 10 were directly facing the building that had been prepared for detonation. The average distance from these buildings to the Palace of Culture was approximately 200 m. The structures included a military hospital, an educational institution, factory facilities, and apartment buildings, all of them hooked up to natural gas pipelines. If an intentionally or accidentally initiated explosion were to occur, the blast wave or debris could damage the gas lines. If sparks or pieces of burning debris were to fall into the factory grounds, they could ignite tanks of fuel or other chemical reagents or set off explosions of oxygen tanks—in other words, a major industrial catastrophe could result.
The operational headquarters took measures to resolve the situation peacefully, but it was not possible to achieve the desired results. The position taken by the terrorists ruled out any possibility of seeking a compromise solution. It was established that Baraev was not an independent figure and that decisions were being made by individuals located not only outside the building but also outside the borders of Russia. The terrorists’ reconsideration of the agreement to release the foreigners, Baraev’s October 25 statement that they would begin shooting
the hostages at 6:00 a.m. on October 26, the deaths of four people (one woman and three men who were shot), and the previous behavior and personal characteristics of the terrorists reduced the chance of a peaceful outcome of the negotiations to zero and served as the basis for the decision to storm the building.4
From 5:00 to 5:30 a.m. on October 26, after all the necessary security measures were taken, assault teams were moved into their initial positions. It was obvious that in order to neutralize a large group of well-prepared terrorists with established positions in a building with a large number of rooms, individuals who had not only firearms but also an enormous array of explosives deployed in direct proximity to the hostages and at the most vulnerable points in the building’s structure, the situation required an extraordinary plan of action that would preclude the possibility of any explosion. Therefore, the forward deployment of the assault teams was preceded by the use of special gas, which according to the plans of the operation’s leadership would sharply reduce the capacity of the terrorists for resisting the assault. Taking into account the fact that the gas could affect the hostages as well, additional emergency medical service personnel supplied with the necessary antidotes were moved in close to the building.
As for the characteristics of the gas and the concentration used, these were selected by specialists with experience in this area. Fentanyl-based gas is widely used in surgery throughout the world, and it facilitates the temporary reduction of patients’ movements without threatening their lives or health.
The assault teams included explosives specialists. The teams gained entry to the building through three access points—the nightclub, the central entrance, and the lobby windows. In a very short time, after overcoming the armed resistance of the terrorists, the assault teams burst into the auditorium and began defusing the explosive devices and evacuating the people.
During the special operation, which resulted in the elimination of 41 fighters led by Movsar Baraev, more than 750 hostages were freed, including 60 foreigners. Four members of the special forces units were wounded; two of the four were hospitalized. A number of individuals suspected of being accomplices to the terrorists were also detained during the course of the special operation around the theater complex.
Emergency medical assistance was provided to all the victims; however, 129 people died, including 8 foreign citizens. With regard to these victims, the loss of whom was unfortunately impossible to avoid, the main factors that increased the likelihood of their deaths were as predicted by health care specialists, namely stress, hypodynamia, hunger, dehydration, and the consequent exacerbation of preexisting illnesses, which are absolutely to be expected in people in a weakened state.5
During the operation, many automatic weapons, ammunition, and 76.6 kg of explosives were discovered and taken from the terrorists, including 17 automatic rifles, 20 handguns, 25 homemade explosive devices, so-called suicide belts, 2 homemade bombs in the form of metallic tanks filled with OF-540 artillery
shells (with a total weight of 12 kg of explosives), 106 grenades (90 of which were homemade from VOG-17M and VOG-25 grenades for automatic grenade launchers), and more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition.
These are the basic figures characterizing the results of the operation. However, an analysis of the events of those days provides a basis for a broader range of conclusions and evaluations that have been drawn not only by law enforcement agencies and the special services but also by Russian society in general. Even the most reliable arguments pointing out that casualties were unavoidable under the circumstances and that there would have been far more victims if the start of the special operation had been postponed will not bring back those whose lives were taken by the plague of our times, international terrorism.
The Moscow city prosecutor’s office has initiated criminal case No. 229133 based on Article 30 Part 3 (preparation for crime), Article 205 Part 3 (terrorism), and Article 206 Part 3 (hostage taking) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.
Evidence gathered during the investigation includes documentation of repeated attempts to force Russia’s senior leadership to hold talks with Aslan Maskhadov, as well as the prerecorded message from the terrorists that was broadcast by the al-Jazeera network, the psychological pressure that was placed on the hostages to force them to sign an appeal to the Russian president, the placing of telephone calls to the hostages’ relatives and to the media asking them to organize and conduct rallies in support of the terrorists’ demands, and the well-developed campaign conducted in the media. All of this evidence illustrates once again that the action was planned in advance and was supported in circles opposed to Russian government policy in the North Caucasus.
By means of coordinated investigations and operational efforts, the Moscow city prosecutor’s office, the FSB, the Main Administration for Combating Organized Crime of the MVD Criminal Militia Service, and the Moscow Main Administration for Internal Affairs have done a great deal of work to clarify the circumstances of the hostage taking, determine who actually participated in the terrorist act, uncover the connections between the terrorists and their accomplices, and obtain information about terrorist acts that might be in preparation.
An analysis of the evidence gathered during the investigation illustrates the unbreakable link between this crime and the designs of the ideologists of international terrorism, who plan and finance broad-scale terrorist acts throughout the world. The methods used in developing and implementing the preparatory phase and the act of hostage taking itself were characteristic of those used by extremist organizations associated with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other criminal groups espousing terrorism and violence as a means of achieving their goals.
The unshakable links between international terrorist organizations and fighters operating in the North Caucasus are also confirmed by the fact that Baraev’s bandit group included foreign citizens from the Middle East. International terrorist leaders were involved in preparing and committing the terrorist act. They
provided moral and material support to Baraev’s group, including support sent from abroad, and took part in the leadership of this act. This is illustrated by the repeated attempts made immediately before the terrorist act, including some attempts from abroad, to force Russia’s senior leadership to negotiate with Aslan Maskhadov.
Among the materials gathered for the criminal case are a video cassette of an interview given by Maskhadov on October 18, 2002 (five days before the events), in which he threatens to carry out terrorist acts, and a video of an August 2002 meeting of Maskhadov, Shamil Basaev, Movsar Baraev, and Abu Omar, the Arab mercenary and spiritual mentor of the fighters, at a conference of bandit group leaders in the Chechen Republic, where Baraev received his final orders and blessing to carry out the planned act.
In addition, evidence has been gathered indicating that not only Maskhadov and Basaev but also such major international terrorist figures as Movladi Udugov and Zelimkhan Yandarbiev were involved in planning and carrying out this crime. It should be noted that the latter two criminals are living abroad fully legally and are continuing their vigorous anti-Russian activities.
Up to now, the bodies of 34 of the fighters who were killed have been identified, and efforts are under way to identify the other 7.6 Investigations are being conducted to determine the routes by which the terrorists traveled and the channels through which they obtained weapons and explosives. The routes and means of transportation (rail, air, or bus) used by some of the fighters have already been established. Official inquiries have ascertained that some of the terrorists were using passports with false information. One channel has been discovered through which false documents were created and delivered to the fighters. Operations and investigations are still under way in connection with three individuals in custody. Individuals involved in recruiting the female suicide bombers have been identified and are being sought.
Information has been received indicating a connection between the car bombing at the McDonald’s restaurant on October 10, 2002 (2 Pokryshkin Street, Moscow) and the seizure of the hostages at the Palace of Culture of the Moscow State Ball-Bearing Factory. Expert assessments have established that the types of homemade explosive devices used in both incidents were identical. Certain individuals have been discovered to be involved in both cases.
During their operations, investigators have uncovered apartments used by the terrorists who participated in the hostage-taking incident. These apartments were also used as transfer points for the storage of weapons and explosives. When these locations were searched, officers found and seized firearms, ammunition, communications devices, and other equipment for carrying out terrorist acts, including 21 belts used in making shahid belts for the female suicide bombers.
Of course, more information will become available after the investigation is completed. However, I would like to emphasize that the operation to free the
hostages on October 26, 2002, was and remains one of the most important land-marks in the struggle being waged by the law enforcement agencies and special services of the Russian Federation against the forces of terrorism. The events associated with the seizure of hostages at the Dubrovka theater complex revealed shortcomings in the organization of antiterrorism activities at the federal level, particularly with the process of providing information about the counterterrorist operation through the media. It is essential to understand clearly that the primary goal of terrorist acts is to attract broad public attention to certain processes, to instigate social confrontation within society, and to attempt to put pressure on the authorities and state administrative structures.
While noting the generally well-coordinated and selfless work done to free the hostages, we must also state that there are a number of problems objectively hindering the conduct of such operations. Many of them are of a narrowly specialized nature, and solutions for them are being worked out by the relevant agencies.
Cooperation between law enforcement and the media plays a special role in the process of resolving difficult conflict situations. During this operation, the operational headquarters could not achieve the necessary level of mutual understanding and coordination of actions with representatives of the media. Some correspondents covered the events associated with the freeing of the hostages in a tendentious manner and used the situation for their own particular aims. We must continue to work with journalists in improving our relationship in such situations.
The main conclusion to be made is that the overwhelming majority of citizens supported the action that was carried out, which attests to the consolidation of all segments of society in opposing attempts to destroy the Russian Federation and supporting the struggle against extremism and its ultimate form, terrorism.
We are deeply grateful to the international community for the support provided to Russia in those tragic days. Special thanks go to law enforcement agencies and special services of the partner states that declared their readiness to participate directly in efforts to free the hostages and in the investigation of the circumstances surrounding this crime.
Russia is ready to do everything in its power to promote measures to disseminate the experience it has gained in conducting such special hostage rescue operations, to exchange information on the weapons and equipment used, and to organize joint training exercises for both command and special operations units.