FORMER DEPUTY COMMANDER DESCRIBES WORK OF RUSSIA’S ALFA COUNTERTERRORISM UNIT
The former deputy commander and 15-year veteran of Russia’s elite Alfa counterterrorist unit, Sergey Goncharov, has shed some light on various controversial operations carried out by his former unit in a wide-ranging interview carried by a Russian magazine (Itogi, October 10). Goncharov is currently head of the Alfa Veteran Association which has engaged in anti-Yeltsin political activism in the past but is mainly concerned now with providing protection to Russian “VIPs.”
Alfa’s participation in incidents such as the January 1991 massacre of Lithuanian civilians in Vilnius has left some Alfa veterans open to prosecution (see Rian.ru, July 22). Nonetheless, Goncharov maintains that Alfa Group does not act as an enforcement team for politicians: “We have never been afraid to disagree with decisions imposed from above. And when some kind of TsK [Central Committee] member, who has never held anything other than a hunting rifle, orders us to resolve a problem in a particular way, he needs to be politely sent away. And they have been sent away.”
Goncharov defended the Alfa Group’s role in the 2002 Nord-Ost Theater crisis (in which 129 hostages were killed by poison gas released by Russian Special Forces) and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis (in which 334 hostages and 21 security men were killed in a bungled rescue operation): “Both operations are black marks on both the unit and on the history of Russian antiterrorist efforts. Nonetheless, in the first one, in my opinion, the tactic that was selected was the only possible solution to avoid an enormous loss of life. Of course, it is a great pity that hostages were killed and died from [gas] poisoning, but the use of the so-called "laughing gas" was just about the only solution available at that time… The use of the gas allowed us to enter the auditorium and with precise sniper fire neutralize the terrorists, without incurring huge losses [to Alfa forces]. But at Beslan actually there was no assault. There the guys saved the children, and did not kill the terrorists. They drew fire on themselves as they covered the students with their own bodies.”
In 2005, Goncharov made the surprising claim, against all available evidence, that the assassination of former Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Qatar was carried out by American Special Forces rather than Russian agents (Pravda, August 20, 2005; for the assassination see Terrorism Monitor, May 17, 2005).
However, Goncharov advocates the “targeted elimination of terrorist leaders,” suggesting that the Alfa group has an important role to play in such operations: “[Assassination] is one of the most effective methods of combating terrorism under contemporary conditions. Using medical terminology, the ‘Alfa’ group is a sharp scalpel, a direct action instrument, and the final argument when pills and enemas do not help.” Goncharov notes, however, that such operations can only have a limited effect: “If someone thinks that the elimination of a single leader will result in the destruction of an entire command, this is not correct. Terrorism is an enormous business, in which many countries are engaged. This business is passed on as a legacy, from one killed leader to another.”
Turning to the ongoing conflict in the North Caucasus, Goncharov maintains that the struggle there is financed by external sources: “Fighting in our North Caucasus has been going on so long not for an ideal, but only because combat operations are so lavishly financed. And by whom? One can only speculate. But I personally think this: no matter how hard we try to become friends with the Americans, we will never become friends with them. We can only be fellow travelers with them up until the time they use us for their own purposes. And then they will continue on their own way. And instability in the North Caucasus plays into their hands.”
EGYPTIAN POLICE STRIKE IS LATEST CHALLENGE TO NATIONAL SECURITY
While Egypt’s military not only survived the January 25 Revolution, but succeeded in taking complete control of all government functions, the internal collapse of the nation’s Interior Ministry continues (see Terrorism Monitor, April 7, 2011; Terrorism Monitor Briefs, July 22). Responsible for Egypt’s domestic security and policing, the Interior Ministry was blamed for much of the violence inflicted on demonstrators during the Revolution. Former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly is now facing charges connected to the deaths of protestors, as are a number of other police officials. However, many police never returned to work after the Revolution, while others have engaged in anti-Ministry protests and arson attacks on police facilities. Now a series of police strikes has broken out across Egypt that threatens to bring an end to the Egyptian Interior Ministry in its current form.
Demoralization is the dominant trend in Egypt’s police forces since the Revolution, with many fearing prosecution by the nation’s new military rulers. The police strikes are also part of a larger wave of labor unrest that continues to sweep Egypt since the Revolution, with damaging effects on the national economy and the nation’s tourism industry, an important source of jobs and foreign currency.
The police strikes began on October 24. Thousands of police have gathered in a camp outside the gates of the Interior Ministry headquarters in Cairo, while in the Red Sea Province city of Hurghada, striking police stormed the local police headquarters and destroyed the office of its director. Police at Cairo’s international airport have erected tents in the airport’s arrivals hall (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], October 26). Most importantly, the strikers’ have threatened not to provide security for Egypt’s November 27 parliamentary elections.
Though he was regarded as an unpopular choice within the ministry, new Interior Minister Mansur Essawy took office last March by pledging he would restore security and reduce the role played in Egyptian life by the security services (Ahram Online, March 23; al-Jazeera, March 7). However, since the revolution police are rarely seen on the streets and Egyptians have been urged to take measures to ensure their own security. Crime rates are soaring and car-theft has become an epidemic as police fail or refuse to respond to complaints (Ahram Online, October 26).
Many of the protestors’ grievances predate the Revolution, but complainants at that time were routinely met with investigation, punishment or dismissal. Though the nature of the exact grievances differs according to local circumstances, most can be grouped into the following categories:
- Calls for the resignation of Interior Minister Mansur Essawy.
- Higher wages, though some police have said this does not necessarily entail greater funds from the public purse, only the proper distribution of funds now stolen by senior police officials.
- Access to police hospitals, which in practice are only open to senior police officers and their friends and families.
- Improved working hours and coverage of transportation expenses.
- The dismissal of a number of police generals known for corruption and their close ties to former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly.
- An end to military trials for policemen. Some policemen claim it was fear of military trials for disobedience that was responsible for their brutal treatment of protestors during the Revolution (Bikya Masr [Cairo], October 25; al-Masry al-Youm, October 24, October 26).
Some demonstrating policemen have complained that their representatives have emerged from discussions from senior ministry officials with raises for themselves, but nothing for their comrades (Daily News Egypt, October 25).
Civilian ministry workers have also joined the protests, claiming they are treated worse than the policemen, although demands such as institutionalized recruitment of their sons and daughters for ministry jobs seem to reflect the ways of the old regime (Daily News Egypt, October 25).
On October 25, the ministry issued a statement saying it had agreed to most of the strikers’ demands, but warned that it would not tolerate any threats to the security of the November parliamentary elections (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], October 26). Deputy Interior Minister General Abd al-Latif al-Bidiny offered some observations on the strike on state TV on October 26, acknowledging the legitimacy of the strikers’ demands while suggesting the entire structure of the Interior Ministry needed to be replaced, but only after the political and security spheres had stabilized (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], October 26).