JERUSALEM — “Theater of terror.” That’s what Israeli defense officials are calling last week’s horrifying terrorist attack and mass hostage-killing in the south Russian town of Beslan.
“This marks the return of an old terrorism with new tactics,” one senior Israeli security official said. “We’ve seen mass hostage-takings before, but we’ve never encountered such a determination and ruthlessness, such a willingness to accept the most extreme consequences and such brutal methods.”
According to this theory, the Beslan incident was planned to draw as much world attention as possible. The intention from the outset was to precipitate a crisis and a mass killing that would attract maximum media coverage.
“The terrorists’ demands were declarative and political, not practical,” a ranking Israeli observer said. “Like the demand for withdrawal from Chechnya. But there were plausible demands, as well, such as the release of prisoners. The goal was to create the illusion of negotiation, in order to draw attention. In hindsight, it’s clear that this followed a pattern we’ve seen in the past — the taking of a large number of hostages, as in airplane hijackings. What was different was the higher level of sophistication.”
Israeli officials are closely studying the Beslan incident for possible implications in our region. Army and Shin Bet officials agree that the event represents “a clear escalation, perhaps a rise to a new phase, erasing previous red lines and turning terrorism into a strategic weapon in a global struggle,” one senior army officer said. “This is no longer a lone suicide bomber or a group of individual suicide terrorists. Now we’re seeing several-dozen trained commando fighters, highly motivated and ready to die.”
The Israeli security establishment held discussions this week on the implications of the Russian incident for terrorism in the region. More detailed discussions are planned. It now appears, officials of the Shin Bet security service say, that a common pool of terrorists has emerged — veterans of Afghanistan trained by foreign and American experts — who have spent the past decade looking for action and are becoming radicalized. The officials describe an international wave of Islamic radicalism that serves as a base and a launching pad for Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and other organizations. The methods are not new; what is new is the scale, the disappearance of any red lines or inhibitions, and the choice of new target populations.
During the 1970s and 1980s, mass hostage takings were a common tactic, from airliners to the 1974 Maalot school incident. During the 1990s, the pattern of mass hostage takings was abandoned in favor of individual kidnappings. Now, following the 2001 attack on the Twin Towers in New York, officials detect a return to the pattern of mass terror attacks. The assessment in Jerusalem is that the new norms can be expected to move into the Middle East. The question is whether the Palestinian organizations, or Hezbollah, will copy the Chechen model of “total terrorism.” The Israeli-Palestinian conflict still observes certain red lines that both sides avoid crossing. Israel does not bombard population centers or attack funerals, and makes considerable efforts not to harm innocent bystanders even in the course of airborne targeted assassinations. The Palestinians, for their part, have not attacked concentrations of children in schools or kindergartens and have not attempted to attack stadiums.
The question is whether these rules will be weakened or eliminated following the escalation in Chechnya. “There is a tendency in the world of international Islamic terrorism to copy and adopt new tactics from one arena to another,” a military source said.
Russian authorities requested international intelligence assistance immediately after the Beslan incident erupted. Washington was the first address. The Americans sought to clarify whether there was Iranian involvement in Chechen terror in general and in the Beslan incident in particular. The assessment in various intelligence communities was that Iran has been stirring the pot but has been trying to keep its role indirect, via third parties. Iran has a clear interest in creating disorder and insecurity in Russia and in building up its influence in the Islamic republics of the former Soviet Union. Several intelligence agencies are looking for evidence of an Iranian or Hezbollah link. Israel, for its part, is trying to advance its own idea: creation of an international intelligence network that would link the CIA with the Mossad, the British MI5, Russian Intelligence and other national agencies.
Sources in Jerusalem emphasize that the worst is yet to come. One of the only nations that did not condemn the double bus-bombings in Beersheva last week was Russia. Now, just days later, Russia itself fell victim to a serious attack. The Russians are still trying to distinguish Chechen terrorism from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Israeli officials are dismissive. “One wonders how long it will take them to understand that the situation will be incalculably worse when Iran, Russia’s radical Islamic neighbor to the south, acquires nuclear missiles. When they do understand, it will be too late.”
Russia’s response to the affair has come under heavy criticism in the Israeli military, especially among the Israeli units trained in hostage rescue and similar crises. “In these cases, the state needs to take control of events and restrain the military instinct,” said an Israeli official.
Israeli observers point to similar incidents in recent years: the takeover of the Japanese embassy in Peru in 1995; the April 2002 takeover by Palestinian fugitives of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The governments then moved slowly, faced with a large number of heavily armed terrorists.
The Russian approach, Israeli officials say, is one of no negotiations. In the view of Israeli defense officials, this approach is bankrupt. It may seem odd that Israel should be promoting a moderate approach that does not rule out paying prices during negotiations as tactical moves to manage a crisis. Israeli experts say, however, that “given the numbers of hostages, the amount of firepower, the numbers of suicidal attackers who have nothing to lose, what’s needed is caution.”
The Israeli army has units trained in negotiation, crisis management, crowd control and related areas; the Russian military has no such expertise. The Russian soldiers deployed around the school in Beslan had no idea what to do. The explosion within the school led immediately to a catastrophic chain of events. If there had been a trained professional in the area, he would have preferred to freeze the action, to stop the inexperienced troops from storming the building, on the assumption that the worst had not happened and could be prevented.
That, essentially, is the question. Is the worst still to come?