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Moscow Times
October 27, 2004
Only the Terrorists Learned Their Lessons
By Nabi Abdullaev and Simon Saradzhyan
Staff Writers

After the Dubrovka hostage crisis two years ago, in which all 42 hostage-takers were killed by special forces, the government lulled itself into believing that Chechen rebels would never venture a hostage-taking attack again.

But last month's Beslan tragedy has demonstrated forcefully that the terrorists have learned their lessons from Dubrovka, while the government has flunked.

Politically, the Kremlin was able to turn the Dubrovka crisis to its advantage, quashing even the idea of negotiations with Chechen rebels and curtailing media coverage of terrorist attacks and the war in Chechnya.

Also, rather than explore the tactical and strategic flaws in the handling of hostage-taking crises highlighted by the Dubrovka crisis, the authorities chose to portray the storming of the theater as a victory.

This was done in an effort to convince themselves, the public and the terrorists that the special forces' "success" at Dubrovka would discourage similar attacks in the future, according to Andrei Soldatov, editor of the Agentura.ru web site, which studies terrorism and government responses to it.

In reality, however, terrorist groups have learned from Dubrovka that the taking of so many hostages draws attention to their campaign and can lead to massive casualties, he wrote in a recent editorial on the site.

"When the [Dubrovka] storming is measured as a success in both sides' value systems, then it is clear that a new hostage-taking attack is inevitable," he wrote.

And, while terrorist groups learned this lesson from Dubrovka, the special services and the government as a whole have not, instead brushing aside criticism and calls for better contingency and strategic planning of anti-terrorist efforts.

The authorities' spin on Dubrovka was that "the special forces won. Those who criticize them are not patriots and support disintegration of the country and terrorists," Soldatov wrote.

The Federal Security Service's elite Vympel and Alfa units and other commandos succeeded in overwhelming the terrorists, who had suicide belts primed to go off and numerous bombs planted around the theater, without any of these bombs going off.

However, 130 hostages died because the authorities, including those in charge at the Dubrovka crisis headquarters, did not organize proper and urgent treatment of hostages knocked unconscious by the gas pumped into the theater building by special forces before it was stormed.

To date, no one has been put on trial or punished for this failure to save the lives of the escaping Dubrovka hostages, while the Beslan tragedy once more highlighted the lack of coordination and a clear chain of command during such crises, including a lack of emergency medical care on the spot, as volunteers rescued the injured and rushed them to hospitals in their own private cars.

And while special services' commando units studied the experience of Dubrovka to learn from it, "unfortunately, such documents have either not been read at the state level ... or have not reached ... the actual practitioners of anti-terrorist operations," said Colonel Sergei Shavrin, a Vympel unit officer who participated in the Dubrovka operation, in a recent interview with the newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti.

It was only after Beslan that the Kremlin decided to re-establish a Soviet-era practice of having regional leaders undergo training to learn how to command forces and utilize resources during emergency situations, Soldatov wrote.

The Beslan tragedy highlighted both the lack of a single chain of command and an even more glaring lack of coordination during such situations.

For instance, the efforts of commandos of the Interior Troops' Rus unit to enter the Beslan school were temporarily stalled by the lack of sappers among them, according to an account of events by 58th Army commander Viktor Sobolev in the daily Krasnaya Zvezda.

Sobolev also said that the FSB commandos were training with crews of the 58th Army's armored personnel carriers outside Beslan when the first explosions went off inside the school.

Another lesson apparently not learned from the Dubrovka crisis is that corruption and negligence in law enforcement agencies and other government bodies needs to be tackled if such attacks are to be prevented, rather than simply dealt with when they occur.

A corrupt policeman gave some of the Dubrovka hostage-takers Moscow registration papers in exchange for bribes, while it also remains unclear how the hostage-takers could have driven two minibuses packed with guns and explosives through the city center without being stopped and checked by police.

In a similar display of negligence and lack of professionalism, law enforcement officers had earlier detained six of the terrorists that participated in the Beslan attack on suspicion of involvement in rebel activities.

But all six men were freed, with only one tried and acquitted, the parliamentary commission set up to investigate the Beslan attack found.

Unlike the authorities, terrorist groups have not only learned lessons from Dubrovka, but have also changed tactics as their chances of winning a guerrilla war on the ground in Chechnya appeared to ebb away.

The fact that the Dubrovka crisis failed to bring Putin to the negotiating table appears to have put an end to rebels' hopes of winning the war against federal forces in Chechnya.

With the separatist cause going to the wall, rebel leaders in their desperation have turned to terrorist attacks as their main weapon to highlight their cause, experts believe.

"The rebel leaders think rationally and I don't think they believed they would be able to force Putin into making concessions, even during the Beslan crisis," said Akhmet Yarlykapov, a Caucasus expert from the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology. "Now what they aspire to is being the biggest threat to Russia."

This is a publicity effort that, coupled with rebel leaders changing their constituency from local nationalist to the global Muslim community, provides them with stronger support from donors worldwide, Yarlykapov said.

Alexei Malashenko, a Chechnya analyst from the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that after Dubrovka rebel leaders have no doubt that the prospects for Chechen independence are doomed, but they have no other choice but to continue and escalate their attacks.

"Basayev has not become Osama bin Laden, who thought he was punishing America," he said, referring to a fact that no demands were advanced by al-Qaida before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. "Even during the Beslan crisis, Basayev kept demanding that Russia pull out of Chechnya."

Both experts agreed that, for the foot soldiers carrying out the terrorist attacks, extremist religious motives have become stronger, allowing them to dehumanize an enemy and loosen their attachment to a political constituency whose interests could be hurt by public outrage against the terrorists' indiscriminate violence.

One of the indications of increasing desperation going hand-in-hand with extremist religious fervor is the almost exclusive shift since Dubrovka by terrorist groups toward suicide attacks.

This low-cost -- but extremely effective -- publicity technique has helped terrorists to stay high on the list of public and government concerns, and has allowed time for groups to prepare large-scale operations.

The June raid on Ingushetia, when hundreds of rebel fighters simultaneously attacked dozens of police and security installations, killing 91 people, including 60 police officials, demonstrated how the insurgency in the North Caucasus has become more effective in switching tactics and targets, while federal authorities appear to be scrambling to adapt to the new situation.