Back in October 2002, a brutal terrorist attack in the center of Moscow reshaped the way Russians viewed the threat posed by radical Islamic terror.


Participants in a rally to commemorate the victims of the Nord Ost crisis in Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti

At the end of October, Russia commemorated the 14th anniversary of one of the worst terrorist attacks ever to take place in the country. In October 2002, the Russian authorities faced an escalating hostage crisis at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater, in what became known as the Nord-Ost tragedy for the theatrical performance that was taking place at the time.

14 years ago, on the evening of Oct. 23, 40 gunmen headed by Movsar Barayev burst into the building of the theater to take 914 viewers and participants of the performance hostage. They demanded that the Russian authorities stop the Chechen military operation and start negotiations with Aslan Maskhadov, the leader of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.

For three days, a game of nerves and testing of the Kremlin continued. Was Russian President Vladimir Putin ready to give an order to storm the theater or would he prefer a negotiation strategy?

How Russia’s anti-terror strategy evolved

How Russia answered that question in 2002 actually had its basis in events that took place nearly a decade earlier. During the first anti-separatist campaign in Chechnya (1994–1996), the Russian authorities combined tough military actions against the separatist militants with negotiations.

For example, in Budennovsk, a 195-strong group of militants took 1,600 hostages in a hospital in June 1995. It was then that the words of then Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, “Good afternoon, Shamil Basayev,” became known worldwide as a misguided attempt to negotiate with the terrorists.

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Moreover, the negotiations of the federal government with the number one terrorist of the North Caucasus did not start at once, but rather, after the experience of a failed attack. On June 17, 1995, only 61 hostages were freed (the mass media sometimes cites a different figure of 95 hostages) and all the buildings of the hospital were recaptured except for the main one.

As a consequence, there were attempts made to find a different solution to the dangerous situation. The Russian authorities also resorted to negotiations during the Kizlyar terrorist attack by Salman Raduyev in January 1996, although in that case, the negotiations reached an impasse and failed to prevent a denouement through military action.

In October 1999, the terrorist groups of Shamil Basayev and Khattab made an attempt to “export Ichkeria” to Dagestan. During one and a half months of fighting in that republic, over one and a half thousand separatist militants and 280 Russian servicemen were killed (about a thousand more being wounded).

It is worth noting that, five days after the beginning of the invasion of Dagestan by Basayev and Khattab, Russia's then Deputy Interior Minister Igor Zubov, declared at a press conference that President of the Chechen Republic Aslan Maskhadov had been sent a letter with “a proposal to carry out, jointly with the federal troops, an operation against the Islamists in Dagestan.”

Thus, it would be wrong to say that before the beginning of the second campaign in Chechnya (which was officially declared on September 23, 1999) the leadership of the unrecognized republic had not been given any chance for a compromise. It was just incapable of controlling various sabotage-terrorist groups and lacked both political will and strategy to change the situation for the better. Instead of a joint anti-Islamist operation, on August 16, 1999 Maskhadov declared a partial mobilization of the reservists and participants of the first Chechen campaign.

He declared a general mobilization on Sept. 11. And even on Sept. 14, the then Prime Minister and presidential candidate Putin spoke about the necessity to “carry out an objective analysis of the Khasavyurt agreements” of 1996, which had concluded the first stage of the conflict between the center and the unrecognized republic.

The famous phrase by Putin that terrorists must be “killed in the outhouse” was only pronounced on September 24, 1999. In this situation, it became the ultimate expression of how the Russian government would deal with these situations.

No negotiation with terrorists

From that time on, the refusal to conduct negotiations with terrorists from Chechnya was the cornerstone of Russia’s North Caucasus policy. But the gunmen’s Nord-Ost raid in October 2002 was an action of the largest scale which was made not in some remote Russian city but in the country’s capital.

The expectation of the terrorists was that their daring attack would draw the attention of the world community, and that the residents of Moscow, sensitive to losses and hardships, together with the world’s public opinion, would force the Kremlin to back off and make the North Caucasus issue a subject of negotiations and agreements.

However, that did not happen. On October 26, 2002 a special operation was carried out, as a result of which most of the hostages were freed. But because of the death of 130 people (including 10 minors), Russian society was faced  with the difficult dilemma of the “admissible price to pay,” to which even today differing answers are given. In any case, Nord-Ost highlighted a number of fundamental questions.

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Firstly, many realized that the problem of the North Caucasus was not an issue limited to a specific region. Attempts to fence off the same Chechnya were made twice, in 1991–1994 and 1996–1999, but each time with negative results. And today, after 14 years, it is evident that the regional problems cannot be solved without an effort of true solidarity on the part of the citizens of Russia.

Secondly, the Nord-Ost terrorist attack discredited, even more convincingly, the myth about Maskhadov as a moderate leader who supposedly resisted the calls of the Jihadists.

Shortly before the tragedy, the so-called president of Ichkeria said in an interview: “The Western leaders have to play along with Putin to solve their global problems such as the Balkans, Afghanistan, Georgia, and now Iraq. Now that a war is going on, I have nothing to lose by associating with such people as Basayev, Udugov, or Yandarbiyev.”

According to Caucasus expert James Hughes, “The Dubrovka attack damaged international support for the Maskhadov government immensely.”

Nord-Ost overturned the picture that many people throughout the world had of what was going on in the Russian North Caucasus. The terrorist attack against peaceful residents of the capital city was even called a Russian 9/11.

Those who had tended to see nothing but Moscow’s repressive policy towards “minor nations” and human rights violations realized that the picture of the events in Russia’s most turbulent region was not black and white but had a much more complex nexus. And they realized that the terrorist threat that the North Caucasus radicals posed overhung not only the interests of a particular individual country but the Western world, too.

The terrorist attack in Moscow did not become a turning point in the struggle of the North Caucasus militants against the Russian state. The ideological drift from Chechen separatism to radical Islam took a number of years. Attempts were made to combine both trends. But Nord Ost became one of the stages of this transition, which  was completed in 2004 in Beslan.

According to the Russian expert Sergey Davydov, “The leaders of the Algerian Jihad were able at least to write correctly a khutbah (sermon) while the crying ignorance of the authors of some North Caucasus Islamic sites has already been derided by their opponents.”

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But however low was the level of theological training of the newly sprung North Caucasus mujahids, the political language they used was essentially different from the language of the separatists. Their resources conducted a consistent anti-Russian, anti-American, and anti-European propaganda. Thus, the troops of the U.S. and Britain in Afghanistan and Iraq were now labeled as none other than “occupants” and “enemies.”

Unfortunately, despite some declarations by Russian and American representatives, that has not led to strategic cooperation between the two countries against the Islamic terrorist threat.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.