Getting To The Bottom Of The Dubrovka Hostage Incident

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 3

John Dunlop, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former editor of Chechnya Weekly, has written the most detailed analysis yet to appear publicly in English (or any other language) of the October 2002 hostage crisis at Moscow’s Dubrovka theater. His thirty-five-page text was published as a three-part series by the “Organized Crime and Terrorism Watch” of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from December 18, 2003, to January 15, 2004.

The Dunlop analysis weaves together data from a wide range of Russian language sources, taking into account all the known facts of this mysterious episode, including the many facts that the Russian authorities have tried to sweep under the rug. It also offers a bold, original interpretation of those facts–an interpretation that the author himself acknowledges to be incomplete since the available information is still so patchy.

“In my opinion,” writes Dunlop, “the original plan for the terrorist action at and around Dubrovka bears a strong similarity to the campaign of terror bombings unleashed upon Moscow and other Russian urban centers (Buinaksk, Volgodonsk) in September of 1999. In both cases there is strong evidence of official involvement in, and manipulation of, key actions.” He suggests that “in view of the suspicious connections and motivations of the perpetrators of this incident, as well as the contradictory nature of the actions of the authorities, it would seem appropriate to envisage this operation as representing a kind of ‘joint venture’ (on, for example, the model of the August 1999 incursion into Dagestan) involving elements of the Russian special services and also radical Chechen leaders such as Shamil Basaev and Movladi Udugov.”

Dunlop believes that “the Chechen extremist leaders felt no pressing need to blow up or shoot hundreds of Russian citizens. They were aware that such actions might so enrage the Russian populace that it would then have supported any military actions whatever, including a possible full-scale extermination of the Chechen people. So what Shamil Basaev, Aslambek Khaskhanov, and their comrades in arms seem to have done is, in a sense, to outplay the special services in a game of chess. Most of the bombs, it turns out, were actually fakes, while the few women’s terrorist belts that did actually contain explosives were of danger primarily to the women themselves. As Russian security affairs correspondent Pavel Felgenhauer has rightly suggested, the aim of the extremist leaders seems to have been to force the Russian special services to kill ethnic Russians on a large scale, and that is what happened. Only an adroit cover-up by the Russian authorities prevented the full extent (conceivably more than 200 deaths) of the debacle from becoming known.”

“A central question to be resolved by future researchers,” Dunlop suggests, “is whether or not the Russian special forces planning an assault on the theater building at Dubrovka were aware that virtually all of the bombs located there–including all of the powerful and deadly bombs–were in fact incapable of detonating. If the special forces were aware of this, then there was clearly no need to employ a potentially lethal gas, which, it turned out, caused the deaths of a large number of the hostages. The special forces could have relatively easily and rapidly overwhelmed the lightly armed terrorists. Moreover, if they were in fact aware that the bombs were ‘dummies,’ then the special forces obviously had no need to kill all of the terrorists, especially those who were asleep from the effects of the gas. It would, one would think, have made more sense to take some of them alive.”

In the final analysis, concludes Dunlop, “elements among both the Russian leadership and the power ministries and among the Chechen extremists obtained their principal goals in the assault on the theater at Dubrovka: namely, an end was put to the negotiation process while Aslan Maskhadov’s reputation was besmirched, and the terrorists, for their part, had an opportunity to stage a grandiose fund-raiser. The Russian authorities, moreover, were now able to demonstrate to the entire world that Moscow, too, had been a victim of an Al-Qaeda-style Chechen terrorist act. As in 1999, the chief victims of these terrorist acts were the average citizens of Moscow. The bulk of the evidence, as we have seen, points to significant collusion having occurred on the part of the Chechen extremists and elements of the Russian leadership in the carrying out of the Dubrovka events.”

Readers can quickly access all three parts of Dunlop’s article via the following Internet links, which will lead directly to the relevant parts of the RFE/RL website:

Part 1: http://www.rferl.org/reports/corruptionwatch/2003/12/42-181203.asp

Part 2: http://www.rferl.org/reports/corruptionwatch/2004/01/1-080104.asp

Part 3: http://www.rferl.org/reports/corruptionwatch/2004/01/2-150104.asp