Russia – ‘Russia School Siege ends in Carnage: Hundreds Die as Troops Battle Hostage Takers’ (Washington Post, 2004)

By Matthew Prowse (2014)

Beslan School Siege 2004 – Why were these particular people victims of political violence there and then?

Essay based on: Washington Post Report “Russia School Siege ends in Carnage: Hundreds Die as Troops Battle Hostage Takers”, Written September 4th 2004, By Peter Baker and Susan Glasser.


The report covers the September 1st – 4th 2004 Beslan School Siege. The report summarises “the bloody culmination of a 52-hour siege that began when heavily armed Muslim guerrillas stormed” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004) school No. 1 in Beslan on the 1st of September 2004. It describes how there “had been more than 1000 hostages inside the school, the majority of them children” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004) highlighting the significant number of people involved in the school siege. The report draws attention to the limited response from Vladimir Putin “whose only comment during the siege had been a pledge to ‘save the life and health of those who became hostages’” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004). It also summarises the chaos during the siege when the battle was ending not only, did “some of the hostage takers also tried to escape” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004) but “Many of Beslan’s anxious fathers also ran toward the school, some armed, some not” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004). The report also highlights how the Beslan School Siege was part of a wider series of events happening in Russia “with the nearly downing of two airliners and a suicide bombing at a Moscow subway station that together claimed 100 lives (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004) in the same week.

Who perpetrated this political violence? Why?

In looking at who perpetrated the Beslan School Siege it is useful to distinguish between the individuals who funded it and planned it, and those who physically carried out the attack. It is widely agreed that the attack “was planned by Shamil Basayev with alleged funding from the Kuwaiti Abu-Zaid” (Tuathail, 2009, 4). Basayev was viewed as the key Chechen rebel leader. “The Russian authorities saw him as a Chechen version of Osama Bin Laden, a tag which had some validity” (Steele, 2006). Abu-Zaid, otherwise known as Abu Dzeit “helped plan and underwrite operations in or near Chechnya, including raids in Ingushetia, the seizure of Middle School No. 1 in nearby Beslan and the training of suicide bombers”(Chivers, 2005).

The actual perpetrators of the siege were a group of approximately 30 from the Riyad-us Saliheen Brigade of Martyrs who were “led by a man dubbed the Colonel”(Colonel orchestrated Beslan siege with iron fist, 08/09/2004). During the trial of the only surviving hostage-taker, Nur Pashi Kulayev, Kulayev “told the court that of the 32 persons in the group there were “Ingush, one Arab and one Ossetian and one slant-eyed person. The remainder were Ingush and Chechens. There were four or five Chechens…. There were no [ethnic] Russians” (Tuathail, 2009, 4). This is probably the best account of who perpetrated Beslan as not only was Kulayev there during the siege but the mothers of Beslan group have said they have “no confidence in the prosecutor’s version of events and found Kulayev’s testimony more plausible”(Abdullaev N & Voitova Y, 17/06/2005).

Gearoid Tuathail describes in his journal ‘Making Sense of Beslan’ the three historical geopolitical factors as to why the Beslan School Siege happened. First, there is the “long history of ethnicized strife in the North Caucasus as the Russian state expanded into the region and centralized its power” (Tuathail, 2009, 2). This strife has meant many Chechens have become to aspire an independent Chechen state to stop the Russian authorities committing what are viewed as despicable acts in the territory. Secondly there is the “ethnic secessionism that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union” (Tuathail, 2009, 3). This had led to the Chechens seeking an opportunity to try and force Russia out of Chechnya. Finally there is the “rise of Vladimir Putin through the military re-assertion of Russian power in the region” (Tuathail, 2009, 3). Putin’s “policy of keeping Chechnya – and by extension the whole of the increasingly disaffected Muslim North Caucasus – in a state of lock down” (Church M, 26/12/2013) has caused a lot of resentment from the Chechens towards Russia. All these factors are the key underlying causes as to why the Beslan Siege took place.

In addition at that time links between Islamic Terrorist groups in the Middle East and the Chechen separatist movement were developing. This led to the transfer of ideology and weaponry. The Chechen leadership’s notion of independence was “gradually infused with Islamic ideas and terminology” (Vachagaev M, 14/09/2006, 5). This in turn led to links to obtain the necessary weaponry as “Chechen rebels established international connections that allowed them to import weapons and to learn bomb-making techniques.” (Gorenburg D, 01/2009). These connections with Islamic groups undoubtedly assisted the perpetrators to carry out the Beslan School Siege in the way that they did.

Was that violence legitimate?

To determine whether the Beslan School Siege or any other attack was legitimate it is necessary to consult ‘The Just War doctrine’, which is a doctrine “used by ideological and religious extremists to justify extreme violence” (Martin G, 2013, 15). Then it is necessary to distinguish between the two principles of the doctrine. The first principle being “jus in bello is correct behaviour while waging war” (Martin G, 2013, 15) and the second principle being “jus ad bellum is having the correct conditions for waging war in the first place” (Martin G, 2013, 15).

If we look at ‘jus ad bellum’ what were the moral arguments for justifying action in the first place? The Chechens would argue that they had a clear aim and moral right to seek to create a Chechen state free of Russian interference. This it can be argued is a valid and legitimate aim, although the Russian state would vehemently disagree claiming the actions were seeking to undermine a legitimate Russian State.

Secondly, looking at ‘jus in bello’ the actions of the Chechen terrorists appear to be more difficult to justify on any basis. This was an attack on, and hostage taking of, innocent civilians, including very many children. It also involved random killing of some hostages to encourage the remaining hostages to comply with their captors. This is supported as “16-21 males were shot and killed to reduce the threat of these hostages overpowering their captors in the gymnasium” (Keller W, 2007, 13). In addition, the terrorists lined the walls with explosives. All of those acts appear illegitimate and difficult to justify in the context of the ‘jus in bello’ principle.

It can be argued that the perpetrators can claim legitimacy for the underlying aim of a Chechen state, however due to the way Beslan turned out the terrorists have turned the Siege into an illegitimate act.

Is it a clear case of ‘terrorism’ – in which case how do you define terrorism, and why this particular definition?

If we are to call an event ‘terrorist’ we have to determine how terrorism should be defined. One way is to look at how ‘terrorism’ is defined in the country in which the event has occurred. It is also possible to look at an international definition of terrorism to compare, as it should be an approach that has less vested interests rather than suiting a particular government or state. The UN definition of terrorism is any action, “that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act”(Terrorism, No date). The Russian Terrorism definition according to the Russian terrorism bill (1997) is “using or threatening illegitimate violence against persons and entities or destruction/damage of property committed with the aim of undermining public safety, international entities, and the established government structures through forcing government bodies to make decisions desired by the terrorists”(Defining Terrorism, 01/10/2008).

Looking at the Beslan Siege through both definitions of terrorism it would appear that both definitions would describe Beslan as terrorism, as the perpetrators were trying to force the “withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and the release of prisoners”(Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004). Using the Russian definition of terrorism it can be argued that the perpetrators were trying to force government bodies to make decisions desired by the terrorists and thus we can view the Beslan Siege as a terrorist act. Using the UN definition, the terrorists are using considerable violence so they are acting to cause death or harm to civilians with the purpose of intimidation and compelling the government to act. Thus looking at both definitions of terrorism it is apparent that the Beslan School Siege should be properly regarded as an act of terrorism.

Who or what is to blame?

The blame for why the Beslan School Siege took place and why it turned out as it did can be laid at the door of the Chechen rebel leadership, the terrorists, the Russian government and its role in Chechnya and the surrounding regions, and finally the control of the media by the government. Interlinked into these causes are the ‘historical geopolitical factors’ that Gerard Tuathail makes reference to in ‘Making sense of Beslan’.

The Chechen rebel leadership has to take the majority of the blame for the Beslan School Siege. The Chechen rebel leadership deserves blame for planning and executing the attack on Beslan. The Beslan School Siege was a bad idea not fully thought through as not only would it be likely to lead to many innocent people being killed, it would also be likely to lead to a strong response from the Government and international sympathy for Russia in trying to destroy domestic terrorism. This is exemplified as Shamil “Basayev never fully embraced the consequences of the Beslan operation”(Tuathail G, 2009. 8). “Beslan was one of a series of attacks in Russia that were organized and financed primarily by Basayev and his organization” (Keller W, 2007, 21) and blame has to be appropriated to Basayev and his inner circle. In causing destruction and death in Beslan (and elsewhere in the North Caucasus), they only made peace in the region further away.

Secondly, the terrorists who physically carried out the attack take a key part of the blame. The actions of the perpetrators at Beslan were too violent and led to many deaths, which could have been avoided and the violence used was never likely to garner support for the cause. The perpetrators knew their operation “was a suicide operation and they were there, as the Colonel put it to some hostages, ‘to kill’”(Tuathail, 2009, 5). In addition “The perpetrators themselves carried explosive belts, ammunition vests, and rifles. Aslan Kuduzayev,a hostage, stated that some of the perpetrators carried hand grenades” (Keller W, 2007, 12). The use of such violent means was always likely to elicit a strong and bloody response.

The Russian Government is also partly responsible for the outcome of the Beslan School Siege. The blame appropriated to the Russian government is in two parts. Firstly, it can be argued that during the siege the actions by Russia, its government and its armed forces exacerbated the crisis and led to the number of dead being higher than if they had acted differently. This is supported by Tuathail who argues the “negotiation process with the terrorists was characterised by dysfunctionality as was the effort of authorities to seal off the scene”(Tuathail G, 2009, 8). The Russian authorities failure to engage in effective negotiation led to more deaths and injuries. In addition once the fighting and blasts had begun “the failure to keep away the vigilantes was one of the main mistakes made by local authorities” (Nechepurenko I, 31/08/2014). In not keeping out the vigilantes it caused chaos for the Military as they tried to storm the School and neutralise the terrorists and the vigilantes stopped the Russian forces from being as effective as possible and this led to more deaths.

Leading up to the Beslan School Siege it can also be argued that the Putin administration created an environment that made a terrorist attack such as Beslan more likely in particular looking at the comments made after Putin was elected. Putin often referred to “Chechens as a uniquely criminal nation”(Russell, J, 27/05/2007, 108). By labelling Chechens as not only ‘criminals’ but also ‘terrorists’ Putin created an image, which made the Chechens the enemy, which in turn made many Chechens resentful of Russia. This in turn led to harsh treatment of Chechnya in the Second Chechen War of 1999 to 2000 in which Chechnya was decimated. A particular harrowing part of the Second Chechen War was the “raping and killing of the teenage girl El’sa Kungayeva” (Russell, J, 27/05/2007, 108) by Russian Tank Commander Yury Badanov. Thus this repression and quest for revenge against Russia led to the strengthening of the Chechen Nationalist cause and in turn to the Beslan massacre.

Finally the media deserve blame for their role in creating the environment leading up to the Beslan School Siege. There was significant collaboration between the Russian government and the media in the period prior to the siege creating an environment where the Chechens were demonised. For example “Russia’s media and politicians were accused of equating all Muslims with extremists and bandits” (Russell J, 27/05/2008, 108). In the official media there was “No discussion of the local situation in Chechnya, the effect the Russian operations had on the local populations, the problems with all-round corruption or the possibility to negotiate with the Chechen leadership”(Snetkov A, December 2007, 1353). It can be argued that the media’s failure to put forward an opinion other than the Russian government point of view increased resentment and nationalist tensions.

What type of incident of political violence does this belong to? What type of perpetrator is behind it? (Use Gus Martin’s different categories of terrorist action and groups.)

The Beslan School Siege was predominantly Nationalist terrorism and secondly religious terrorism. Gus Martin defines nationalist terrorism as “political violence committed by members of ethno national groups who seek greater political rights or autonomy” (Martin G, 2013, G-15). This is reflected in Beslan as the Chechens and the “Rebel fighters want independence, or at least self-rule” (Q&A: The Chechen conflict, 10/07/2006). Martin outlines how “Many nationalist dissidents have used terrorism to achieve their goals.” (Martin G, 2013, 136). This holds true for the Chechen nationalist movement, who have been responsible for the Moscow Theatre siege of 2002, the March 2010 Moscow subway attack, as well as attacks in Grozny and Ingushetia.

It can also be argued though to a lesser extent that the perpetrators also fit Gus Martin’s religious terrorism definition with it being defined by Martin as activities “conducted by groups of religious ‘true believers’ who fervently have faith in the sacred righteousness of their cause” (Martin G, 2013, 175). Firstly Chechens are “a largely Muslim ethnic group” (Bhattacharji P, 08/04/2010) and in particular the Beslan perpetrators were described as “Muslim guerrillas” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004). In addition the Chechen rebels have “intended to build an Islamic state”(Vachagaev M, 14/09/2006, 5). This highlights there is a significant religious Islamic element to the Chechen rebels aims, with Nationalism their key aim, interlinked with Chechens wanting to follow Islamic principles. The funding of the rebels from the Middle East described earlier also supports this view.

What was the response to it, and how appropriate was that response?

After Beslan the Russian government undertook a counter-terrorist operation, which led to many killings of Chechens and rebel leaders. The list of Chechen separatists killed by the Russian forces is extensive, key figures include Shamil Basayev in 2006, Aslan Aliyevich Maskhadov in 2005 and recently Doku Umarov who was killed in 2013. This targeting of the Chechen leadership has led to the fragmentation of the Chechen terrorist network, which in turn has led to the decrease of terrorist acts in Chechnya and the neighbouring region. In particular in the run up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics “special services were particulary active” (Mirzayan G, 04/10/2014). In particular Mirzayan quotes how “in the first six months of 2014, 130 militants were killed, including 21 ringleaders, and more than 160 rebel hideouts and arms caches were destroyed” (Mirzayan G, 04/10/2014), which highlights just how strong the response has been and continues to be from the Russian Government and armed forces.

Secondly, however, there has been a more conciliatory approach in particular a mediation process allowing the Chechens to run their own affairs to a degree with Russian blessing. This has led to Ramzan Kadyrov being installed as Chechen President after his father was killed in 2004. Ramzan is the “the region’s single most powerful political figure” (Eke S, 05/04/2007). It is argued his presidency has had a calming influence on Chechnya helping to encourage reconstruction money into Chechnya. In addition “Some former militants have also joined the administration of Ramzan Kadyrov” (Mirzayan G, 04/10/2014) which it can be argued has led to less conflict in the area, as the Chechens are able to run their affairs with Russian rule. It can be argued this two-pronged approach, with repression but also some self-determination, has been more effective than the previous solely hard-line approach from the Russian authorities and it has allowed the nationalist conflict to be de-escalated.

Is the press report guilty of failing to examine important underlying assumptions? Are its choice of language, its description of the incident, and its analysis of cause and response adequate?

The report was written immediately after the end of the siege. Given it is a contemporaneous account it is not surprising that it is emotive and lacks some of the comprehensive detail of later accounts. In view of the time when it was written, however, it is a perceptive and fair article.

The report is emotive describing that the “school turned into a battlefield” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004) and describing how “two powerful explosions from inside the building rocked Beslan” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004). The report is also emotive through its use of quotes for example, a local volunteer said after going in the school that “The whole floor is covered in bodies” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004). Or a Russian aunt shouting “Are there dead children? Where are the dead children” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004) as she went looking for her 12 year old nephew. The report also describes the “battered burned and scorched survivors” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004) whilst a local volunteer describes the how “The whole floor is covered in bodies” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004) outlining the sheer emotion of the scene. However the report is balanced as to what happened during the siege. The emotive language gives colour to the report rather than seeking to favour one party’s viewpoint or another.

The report is descriptive but is, to an extent, selective on facts. It is descriptive as it outlines the role and actions of the Russian Government and its Military, the role and actions of the terrorists and also how the siege played out with key events highlighted by the report. The report is limited but balanced in examining the causes of the siege. It makes reference to “Russian officials have long claimed that Chechen rebels were connected to international Islamic fighters, including AL-Qaeda” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004). It also refers to Chechen claims for independence stating that “Putin has refused to negotiate with the Chechen government in exile, led by Aslan Maskhadov, instead calling the separatists terrorists and resisting efforts to hold peace talks” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004). As such the report is able to provide interesting context to the Beslan Siege and gives the reader reasons as to why the siege took place.

Does the report otherwise accurately reflect the Beslan Siege? The report was written immediately after the siege finished. Emotions were running high, whilst facts and the accuracies of facts were low. For example we see inaccuracies in the report such as of the perpetrators “three were captured” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004). We now know there was only one terrorist caught as Nur-Pashi Kalayev “was the only surviving terrorist responsible”(Beslan School Siege Fast Facts, 21/09/2014). The report also gives very rough figures as to the number of victims (or potential victims) that were caught up in the siege estimating there were “Between 500 and 700 injured”” (Baker P and Glasser S, 04/09/2004) with the official count later being at 783.


Abdullaev N & Voitova Y, (17/06/2005), A search for Truth at Beslan Trial,, [15/12/2014]

Baker P and Glasser S, Russian School Siege Ends in Carnage, (04/09/2004),, [18/11/2014]

Beslan School Siege Fast Facts, 21/09/2014,, [14/12/2014]

Bhattacharji P, Chechen Terrorism (Russia, Chechnya, Separatist), Council on Foreign Relations, (08/04/2010),, [15/11/2014]

Chivers C J, ‘World Briefing | Europe: Russia: Suspected Qaeda Operative dead’, (22 February 2005),, [26/11/2014]

Chivers C J, For Russians Wounds Linger in School Siege, (26/08/2005),, [15/11/2014]

Church M, (26/12/2013), ‘Russia’s bitter relationship with Chechnya will be in the spotlight during Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in February’ ,, [15/12/2014]

Eke S, (05/04/2007), Profile: Ramzan Kadyrov,, [15/12/2014]

Gorenburg D, (01/2009), ‘The causes and consequences of Beslan: A commentary on Gerard Toal’s placing blame: Making sense of Beslan’, Political Geography, vol. 28, no. 1, pp 23-27

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Snetkov A, December 2007 ,‘The image of the terrorist threat in the Russian press: the Moscow Theatre crisis (2002) and the Beslan hostage crisis (2004), Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 59, no. 8, pp. 1349-1365.

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One thought on “Russia – ‘Russia School Siege ends in Carnage: Hundreds Die as Troops Battle Hostage Takers’ (Washington Post, 2004)

  1. The structure is clear and coherent, with a good introduction and a good conclusion. At the same time it is almost too rigidly structured in that it telegraphically reproduces headings suggested as guides in the module, and yet it does not provide in-text linkages between those blocks or an outline of your argument at the end of the intro.

    The analysis is very good overall in that it covers many relevant themes and covers many of them exhaustively and well. At the same time, sometimes the argument is a little quick and so could be a little more meticulous and thorough. The essay clearly had to balance this against the pressures of limited length and much to cover, and it does cover a lot and cover it convincingly and systematically, but sometimes the argument does move a little more quickly than ideal whereas sometimes it can slow down a little or be a little less thorough and convincing. For instance: the role of religion could have been discussed further and in more critical depth, as the counter-terrorist alternatives which might have been less costly (in human lives).

    The essay is also very well researched, in very good depth and breadth, and demonstrates very good knowledge and understanding of the case study.

    The English is also very good apart from the odd (and forgivable) spelling errors.

    In short, sometimes the essay could develop the argument a little more meticulously, and there could be more in-text signposting, but overall this is already a very good, thorough analysis in terms of breadth of coverage.


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