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Analysis: Who Are The Hostage Takers In North Ossetia?

With no end to the hostage taking at a school in North Ossetia in sight, it is already clear that the incident is a landmark in Moscow's ongoing struggle to preserve its control over the North Caucasus using force under the guise of combatting "international terrorism." In hindsight, the hostage taking may in a few years be seen as a turning point that led to Moscow's defeat in that battle.

The modus operandi of the Beslan hostage takers is similar to that used in the Moscow theater hostage taking in October 2002. The hostage takers are masked, dressed in black, heavily armed, and include both men and a handful of women. The latter are reportedly wearing explosives strapped to their bodies in readiness to blow up the building. The hostage takers' initial demands, reportedly conveyed by a small girl who was allowed to leave the building, were twofold: the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya (which the Moscow hostage takers had also demanded), and the release of the 27-30 militants arrested in Ingushetia for their alleged participation in the 21-22 June multiple raids into that republic in which up to 90 people, primarily Ingushetian Interior Ministry personnel, were killed.

The Ingush raid in June was itself a milestone insofar as the attackers included not only Chechens but many young Ingush youths who, alienated by the abduction of close relatives by the Ingushetian security forces, had flocked to fight under radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev.
The hostage takers' initial demands, reportedly, were twofold: the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and the release of the 27-30 militants arrested in Ingushetia after the 21-22 June multiple raids there.

Basaev claimed responsibility for the October 2002 Moscow theater hostage taking after it occurred, and is widely believed to have masterminded, if not actually directed in person, the June raids into Ingushetia. But, which is sympathetic to Basaev, carried on 1 September a denial that he is in any way connected to the events in Beslan. If one lends credence to that denial, then one logical conclusion is that the Beslan perpetrators may have served under Basaev and tapped his tactical expertise, then staged the Beslan raid independently.

Reuters on 2 September quoted North Ossetian Interior Minister Kazbek Dzantiev as saying that the Beslan hostage takers include both Ingush and Chechens, and that "they speak good Russian.", for its part, quoted Dzantiev as saying that there are also Ossetians and Russians among the militants. That Ossetians, who in contrast to all other North Caucasus ethnic groups are Christian, not Muslim, and who have traditionally supported Russia ever since their territory was voluntarily incorprated into the Tsarist Empire in 1774, should make common cause with the Ingush is surprising; that some Russians should join them is, at first glance, doubly so. But that solidarity could well be the product of shared despair at the poverty and corruption that, to varying degrees, bedevils all the North Caucasus republics. Such broadbased rejection of Russia's policies towards the North Caucasus calls into question President Vladimir Putin's repeated assertions that Islamic fundamentalism and Chechnya-based groups with links to Al-Qaeda are behind the recent spate of terrorist attacks in Russia. Valerii Andreev, head of the North Ossetian branch of Russia's Federal Security Service, dismissed the hostage takers' ethnicity on 2 September as irrelevant.

The Beslan hostage taking does, however, substantiate the argument adduced repeatedly by both Putin and pro-Moscow Chechen leaders that there is no point in engaging in peace talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov because he does not control most of the militants fighting in Chechnya. It may not be coincidental that the Beslan attack came just weeks after Russian politician Arkadii Volskii called for talks with Maskhadov and offered to play mediator. The Moscow theater hostage taking two years ago similarly followed a mediation bid by Russian politicians, including former Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin.

Just three days before the Beslan hostage taking, British Chechnya expert Thomas de Waal remarked in an editorial pegged to the 29 August ballot to elect a successor to slain pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov that "Five years ago, when Moscow launched an 'antiterrorist operation' to recapture Chechnya, there was no real terrorism there. Now, thanks mainly to Moscow's policies, it is becoming a real threat." What is more, that threat is already no longer confined to Chechnya nor, apparently, is it coordinated by a single person or group. That escalation will make it all the more difficult to contain, let alone eradicate, using the methods that Russia has relied on to date.

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