Today in Terrorism: 24 October 2002 Moscow theatre

Moscow theatre hostage crisis ends when authorities pump poison gas into hall killing hundreds

Hundreds of people died when Chechen terrorists took hostages at a Moscow theatre and authorities used poison gas to end the siege.

The word ‘terrorism’ is a neologism based on the root word ‘terror’. There are many things that terrorise us, although the specific list varies from person to person. For instance, I am terrified of heights and I know that many others are not.

Furthermore, there is a difference between something that can terrorise you through agency and something that has no such power. Heights do not make me afraid on purpose: they are just there and I have a reaction to them. People, on the other hand, can take steps to instill terror in others. Terrorist groups are a good example.

Terrorists can paralyse us with fear in so many ways. Bombs can be remotely detonated, leaving much uncertainty as to who is behind the carnage.

Vehicles can mow through pedestrians, weaving this way and that, such that some may see sidewalks as no longer safe.

And then there are hostage-taking situations. These can be short or prolonged: in the latter case the lack of a definite end can increase the suffering of those being held. Will I live? Will a terrorist shoot me to make a point or to express frustration at the lack of progress in negotiations? Will I die in the rescue effort?

From October 23-26, 2002 all of the above transpired

Chechen terrorists rushed in to the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow taking upwards of 850 people captive. The terrorists demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya and an end to the so-called Second Chechen War. They were led by Movsar Barayev, the head of an Islamist extremist group in Chechnya.

As the siege continued and a number of hostages were killed, Russian special forces decided to act on October 26. They released a poisonous gas into the ventilation system to subdue the terrorists but ended up killing hundreds of hostages as well. The death toll is hard to ascertain with any accuracy as some hostages had been released as a demonstration of good faith by the Chechen terrorists, in addition to the chaos of the rescue itself. Some victims died later from the effects of the gas and may not be reflected in official figures. Guesses on the number of deaths range from the low 200s to the low 300s.

What is clear is that the vast majority of victims died because of the gas and not at the hands of their captors, some of whom fired wildly as the special forces counter attack began. The Russian government not only refused to name the gas it used – it did identify it four days later as carfentanil, a very powerful opioid – but would not tell doctors how to treat the victims, justifying its silence by saying it wanted to keep the information from future terrorists.

Opinion polls in the immediate aftermath showed that 85% of Russians supported the action ordered by President Putin. In my view, as difficult as the situation was, the immediate cover up and lack of good information brought back memories of the former Soviet Union obfuscation on all such matters.

I cannot imagine having lived through that crisis (if I had survived the rescue). A night at the theatre turned into a hostage taking by Chechen terrorists holding powerful guns.

Now that is terror in anyone’s books.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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