Lessons from the Terror at Beslan

By Jim Irvine and Alan Wheeler

On June 11, close to 100 individuals attended a conference on terrorism presented by John Giduck. Buckeye Firearms Foundation made seats available to state and local school board members as well as numerous teachers and administrators at no charge because the topics covered are critical to the safety and security of our schools and the children who attend them. We are grateful to those who took the time to attend, and saddened that more did not take this opportunity to learn vital information affecting the children in their care.

Giduck covered the history of terrorist events from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Beslan and Mumbai. Terrorism is about getting attention. Terrorists seek the attention of government, the public or citizens, other nations and often Muslim extremists to further their agenda.

It is critical that the media give the attack extensive coverage. Al Qaeda often attacks four targets at once to ensure success even if one or two attacks are stopped. There are 600 terrorist groups in the world competing for capital and one failure would make it difficult to obtain the money and people needed for the next attack. Al Qaeda does extensive research and planning for each attack to ensure success. Government cannot detect everything, so it is imperative that citizens be aware and alert to signs of reconnaissance by hostile individuals.

They attack democracies to force changes in government. You cannot change the government in areas such as China and North Korea. This is why terrorists do not have as much to gain by attacking China. It only works in a democracy. They study the culture of those they attack. They know their enemy. They attacked Spain just prior to an election causing a change that resulted in troops being pulled out of Afghanistan.

Terrorists of all shapes and sizes, foreign and domestic, fear the resistance of the target population. For this reason, targets on U.S. soil are generally in “Gun Free Zones” where the general public is disarmed. This greatly increases the probability of success and a larger body count. This is a critical lesson that has fallen on the deaf ears of too many elected officials.

There are 4 strategic level attack methods employed by terrorists.

  1. Bombings or Decimation Assaults.

    They begin and end quickly. They are martyrdom attacks, where the terrorist is there to die, or a Fedayeen attack, where escape is not likely, but possible. The attack is high risk, where surrender is not an option.

    Examples include active Shooters/killers, Suicide Bombings, Bombings, Arson, Cyber-Terrorism, Biological and Radiological attacks.

  2. Mass Hostage Sieges

    The preferred method is taking children and women as this causes greater psychological damage to the entire nation.

  3. Hybrid or Synergistic Assault

    The method contains a combination of both the Decimation Assault and Mass Hostage Siege. 9/11 was an example of this type of attack as hostages were taken on each of the four planes, and the terrorists took control and flew the planes in a suicidal decimation assault on the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

  4. Symphonic Attack (Mumbai, India)

    A symphonic attack has many different things happening simultaneously. This may involve landmarks, like the hotel Waldorf Astoria which was targeted in 1993, or the G8 summit which was targeted in July of 2006 and was an attempt at a Beslan, Russia style attack. These attacks were thwarted before they happened. The attacks on Mumbai, India were symphonic attacks.

In the United States, we place an extreme value on life. It is hard for many people to understand that others place a high value on killing our innocents. We view one hostage death as a failure, but this naïve perspective places more lives at risk by preventing actions that would stop the killing of many innocents. Russians intentionally shot through (and killed) a child to engage a terrorist who was in the process of killing many more children in Beslan. It is a gut-wrenching decision that a warrior must be prepared to make. We must support our heroes because those in the media will surely condemn them for such fortitude. In a mass hostage siege there are only two guarantees:

  1. There is going to be a battle.
  2. People are going to die.

The trend in mass hostage sieges is to take and control exponentially greater numbers of hostages with fewer terrorists. Terrorists will fortify their position, fight off assaults from law enforcement, and kill hostages. Women and children are the easiest to kill and have the heaviest impact on the target population. "Children are noble targets."

Current American Threats

Teams of mostly middle eastern men are here actively studying us. They are videotaping buses, schools, and neighborhoods. They never break laws, and do little to draw attention to themselves. Many of these men are already on the Terrorist Watch List. When approached they will claim that they are just checking out schools for family members overseas who may be immigrating with children.

Our schools present prized targets for terrorists. In 2002, video tapes were found in an Islamic militant area that contained video of terrorist training camps, training specifically to attack schools and barking out orders to students in English. (That is a big clue about where they are training to attack.) Al Qaeda trains to avoid armed resistance as well as men and older boys, as these are the members of the target population that offer the greatest threat of resistance and problems. Bin Laden himself said he would kill 2 million children and found several Islamic leaders that could justify the killing of children in the Koran.


Chechnya is roughly the size of Connecticut and has been part of Russia since the 1600s. Ingushetia is next to Chechnya and is considered by Russians to be the same and another part of the problem. Both places practice Islam and Wahhabism. When Russia left Afghanistan, the Mujahideen fighters they had been in combat against were battle hardened and eager for more fighting. They went to Chechnya to continue the fight.

North Ossetia, next to Ingushetia, is composed of Russian Orthodox Christians. This is where the town of Beslan is located, with a population of 40,000 people and six schools, each having grades 1-11. Beslan middle school number 1 was the target on the 1st day of September, 2004. It was built in the 1800's and was a tactical nightmare for Russian

Special Forces

The hostage takeover in Beslan happened as the children, teachers, and parents were outside and had begun entering the school. This allowed the terrorists to control the entire group before they had separated and gone into their classrooms. The terrorists brutally murdered several hostages in front of everyone to gain absolute control through fear. The initial victims were men. This was strategic because these were the ones that could fight back or protect other victims. The terrorists made sure that they had gotten through the commission of the initial siege, and getting the hostages to submit to fear and their authority before the first members of the military or law enforcement arrived.

At key times in the siege, the terrorists offered hope to the hostages by telling them they would survive and even freeing some hostages. This also serves to stabilize the environment both inside for the terrorists and for the police outside because there will be no assault or siege when everyone thinks that the remaining hostages will survive. This leads to negotiations between law enforcement or the military and the terrorists. Terrorists excel at cycling between fear and hope to control the hostages.

Negotiation is beneficial to the terrorists because it allows them time to fortify their positions for the inevitable assault. It also serves to allow the police time to plan a successful assault operation. This is when access to the media becomes important as it will allow the terrorists to gain access to the four target audiences. When the terrorists' message is out, and they have fortified themselves, and are ready for the assault, they will execute hostages on a massive scale. When terrorists do not wear masks, as in the case of Beslan, they have committed the act with the full intention of dying.

Russian Response

Russia responded with various military and Special Forces units. However, neither of the special forces units were close to Beslan when the first bomb exploded. Various units did not train or work together. There was no coordination or information sharing. No one wanted to be in charge, or to accept responsibility. To make matters worse, 20,000 armed citizens had arrived at the school and the perimeter had gotten out of control. Men were firing weapons at the school and trading gunfire with terrorists. After 3 days, the terrorists knew that the assault would come. Hostages cannot hold out with any semblance of order much longer. For detailed information on the Russian response and the negotiations see the book "Terror at Beslan" by John Giduck.

Lessons from Beslan

  • Support your local law enforcement
    Police must be able to identify potential targets in their area and train there. This means they should be training in the actual schools.
  • Citizens must demand real and effective school security
  • Keep an eye out for suspicious individuals around the schools and other gathering areas.
  • Be ready for violent graphic scenes and images
  • Tactical medics are crucial

Key points for law enforcement

  • Dress for battle every day.
  • Patrol units must have battle gear ready and with them at all times.
  • Reserve S.W.A.T. members must have all their tactical gear with them at all times.
  • A playbook of tactics is necessary. No single tactic covers all possible scenarios.
  • Hand signals are critical as gunshots and explosions make verbal communication impossible.
  • Evolved breaching tactics are needed to get into the building quickly. (Drive a car straight through the wall.)
  • Integrate training with law enforcement and citizens.
  • Access the most knowledgeable person about the building or place, such as the janitor
  • Non-lethal artillery is needed as they will use human shields (fire hoses are great)

Terrorists fear failure. They fear armed citizens and the police because these elements make failure more likely. We must take steps to make the planning and execution of their mission as difficult as possible. We call on all attendees to take the lessons from today home to their districts and work to open the minds of legislators and school board members to taking needed steps to improve security.

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