When Russian Special Forces units stormed the terrorist held school in Beslan on Sept. 3, 2004, John Giduck was landing in Moscow with his Archangel team of tactical consultants, including former Soviet Spetsnaz commandos. Giduck reached Beslan while the school was still smoking from the fires ignited by the Chechen terrorists; bombs and bodies of the more than 344 victims of the siege were still being removed. The experience changed Giduck’s life and led him to become one of the busiest law enforcement speakers and trainers in America.
Giduck was commissioned to write an after-action report for the U.S. government on the tactics used by both the terrorists and the Russian troops who assaulted the school. He soon realized that the information in that AAR needed a larger audience, and he wrote “Terror at Beslan: A Russian Tragedy with Lessons for America’s Schools.” The book was written in just three months and, ever since it’s publication, Giduck and Archangel have become some of the busiest law enforcement and military trainers in America.
Police: You’re an attorney by profession; how did you get involved with Russian Special Forces units?
I was working on a master’s degree in Russian Studies in Russia, and I got to know through an odd set of events the gentleman who was the head of the KGB for the St. Petersburg region. I’ve always been a wrestler and a wrestling coach. So I told him I was interested in learning the Russian martial art called SAMBO. He set me up for some training with some of the Spetsnaz instructors, and I started training with them. As time went on and I kept coming back for more beatings, I got introduced to more people. That’s the way it works in Russia. Everything runs on personal relationships.
Police: Were you in Russia when the siege at Beslan occurred?
We got into Moscow as the siege was ending. We got down to Beslan the morning after. It was a bad scene. They were scraping bodies out of that gym for quite a long while, and I mean scraping.
And the town itself was just insane. People were running everywhere, racing around 20 people in a car with guns bristling out. Any time we heard a rumor that were more terrorists in a house somewhere, everybody—the military, the police, the citizens—would go there and start shooting things up. That went on for several days. It was out of control.
Police: Why do you think Americans tended to have such a sympathetic view of the Chechens before Beslan?
It’s a product of two things: our post-Cold War mentality and the Western news media. For nearly 50 years, Russians were evil in the eyes of Americans. They were bad. They were the enemy. Then in 1991 as the Soviet Union was disintegrating and people were looking to begin leaving, the Chechens declared their independence.
To us, their independence made perfect sense. It wasn’t an unreasonable thing. The Russians were the “Evil Empire,” therefore by definition anyone who wanted to get away from them was good or certainly politically aligned with us. So our government and our State Department’s formal policy were in favor of the Chechen cause for independence. And the U.S. embassy in Moscow started letting any of them in who applied for visas come here.
And the Western news media has really come down on the side of the Chechens. If you’re really careful and you read and watch and listen to news accounts and you pay attention to the word choice of commentators, you will never hear the Chechens called “terrorists.” This is true even as they were taking over the Nord-Ost Theater in Moscow, even as they were taking over the school in Beslan. Most of the news accounts called them “freedom fighters,” “rebels,” “independence seekers.” It’s a blind spot that we have in our thinking.
Police: Has that changed at all now that we are fighting Chechens in Afghanistan and Iraq?
This is something that I pay attention to constantly. By and large the news media account has not changed a bit. In fact, it is rare to find mainstream news media reports that will even acknowledge the fact that there are Chechens fighting us in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Police: Why did the American news media soft pedal the brutality of the Beslan siege?
Part of it is political. They have been locked into a particular perspective and viewpoint. It’s difficult for them to now change and say, “Oh my God. These people are horrible. Look at the terrible things these people are doing.” They’ve allowed their egos to get interjected into it.
And it’s not as though Russia is an innocent party. Russia has committed more than its share of atrocities in Chechnya. But Russia has never taken over a school full of Chechen children and wired them to bombs.
The thing that is most relevant to me is that I have friends in Russia. I have friends in Russian Special Forces units. I don’t have any friends who are Chechens. I know some Chechens. Ultimately, I don’t have a horse in this race. It doesn’t matter to me. Ultimately, all that matters to me is what is the relevant tactical information for America. As for the two parties to that conflict, there’s one thing I know for sure: I don’t have to worry about Russian Special Forces coming over here and taking over schools full of our children. But there are groups over there in that conflict who will do it, who certainly have planned it, who will do it at the first opportunity, and that includes the Chechens, Muslim Arabs, and North African Muslims who are operating in Chechnya and training there.
Police: Have we done anything in America to protect our schools from a Beslan attack?
No. The short answer is no. There are a lot of police departments around the country that are very forward thinking that understand the broad global threat and reach and reality of all this, who know it will come to America. They are doing their absolute best to be as prepared as they can be but unfortunately, we keep tying their hands. We impose ridiculous legal and equipment restrictions on them. They don’t have enough ammunition, weapons, training time, and they face tactical restrictions that make it almost impossible for them to truly be ready for attacks.
Schools themselves have done an inexcusable job of being prepared for anything. To be honest, the schools here in America have not done a credible job of being tactically prepared for just student shootings in their schools. And that’s something that keeps happening here. Our cops have done a good job. They’ve stopped a number of them. But now it’s not a lone shooter, it’s five.
The last one that was stopped was five kids. Those are huge odds, especially for one SRO with two magazines for his or her sidearm. These kids have not yet worked up the courage to attack a school with an armed uniformed police officer, but someday they will. They will just walk up to that cop and hit that cop before he or she even knows what’s happening.
Police: What is the most important thing that American law enforcement can do to prevent a Beslan attack in America?
That’s a tough question because all of the decision points are taken away from law enforcement. If American law enforcement were given the options, they would have more cops in the schools and those cops would be better armed.
Again look at the reality of school shootings. One police officer with a sidearm against five heavily armed teenagers is in a very tough situation. If it were up to the cops—and this would be a valid thing to do—those SROs would be in full tac gear, tactical body armor, and they would go nowhere without an assault rifle, and a backpack full of ammo in preset magazines. Things like that are great deterrents.
Beyond that, the best things police can do are to be as knowledgeable as possible about the reality of these kinds of threats and to start incorporating the tactics and the circumstances into their training. And don’t make a secret about it.
This is one of the things you want the enemy to know. Play the counter-intelligence l game let them know that your department is ready that your department is getting ready. We train for these things. We’re ready for you.
It’s a terribly uncharitable thing because what it comes down to is that you’re getting ready in your jurisdiction so that the terrorists go somewhere else. But unfortunately that’s the reality of the situation that we are now facing in America.
Police: Some of the tactics that the Russians use against terrorists would never fly in America. Do the Russians think we’re fighting terrorism with one hand behind our back?
The Russians don’t think that we’re really addressing the terrorist threat at all. They realize, and I think the terrorist realize, that since 9/11 America has acted in the most predictable fashion. Time has gone by and everybody has just gotten on with their lives, and they don’t want to be bothered by this anymore.
Five years after 9/11, people want to think that that is ancient history. But they forget that these same people took eight-and-a-half years between their first and second efforts to bring down the World Trade Center towers. Time is on their side. They know it. They know Americans can’t pay attention that long.
Police: You write that Beslan was in many ways a dry run for America’s schools. Have you had any luck convincing American law enforcement that this is true?
Absolutely. I’m on the road five or six days every week speaking to law enforcement and giving briefings on Beslan. I have rooms packed with law enforcement because I am preaching to the choir. Most cops in America already get it. People in law enforcement realize that this is coming here, and that they will be the people who have to deal with it. Our SWAT teams are our domestic special forces. And they will have to perform at that level. They are doing everything they can to get themselves as ready as they possibly can be.
Police: Are the terrorists aware of this?
Oh absolutely. They put all of this in their intel files. Any time a police department or a SWAT team anywhere in America has to respond to a critical incident and the news media reports the response time, it goes into the terrorists' intel files. They need to know law enforcement’s response time. They need to get through the first two phases of their model before the first cop arrives. They are trained to use diversions to draw officers off to another area.
This is why these attacks are likely to occur outside of big urban areas. Ask yourself this question, you are a terrorist and you’ve only got you and nine other guys and you have to take and hold 1,500 hostages and be ready to fend off a government attack, Are you going to go to New York where in the metro area they have 52,000 sworn cops? Or are you going to go somewhere a little more remote? Somewhere that represents America and the heartland, the places that all Americans have an affinity for. That’s where you’re going to go. And it might take the first cop 40 minutes to get there. And it might take the first three cops an hour-and-a-half to get there. That’s the kind of time they need to get through the opening phases of one of these sieges, to make sure it turns into a siege. The last thing they can ever afford is to have that first cop decide to engage and treat it like an active shooter situation. They have studied what cops are doing and they know about active shooter. They want this thing to turn into a siege, and they will make it easy for the commanders outside to make the decisions that will let it turn into a long siege.
Police: You sent a letter to Tom Ridge but never received an answer. Have you had any luck convincing Homeland Security of the threat to our schools? Have you been in contact with Michael Chertoff?
No one in our organization has had any contact with the director of Homeland Security.
Police: “Why haven’t the terrorists hit us since 9/11?
There are a lot of things going on, an awful lot of things. One of the aspects of the terrorist mentality for big operations like this is that they always have to outdo their last big score. In Russia, they had 800 hostages at Nord-Ost. They had to outdo it at Beslan. The 9/11 attack is a tough thing to beat. That’s part of it.
The other part is that the U.S. invading Afghanistan was a huge shock to them. We have done a very good job of crippling the core of Al Qaida. We have done a very good job of strangling their money. So we have made things very difficult for them. So what has happened is that they do what they always do. They hunker down. They keep their heads down, then they get their legs back under them, start pulling resources together, start conscripting personnel, acquiring weapons and explosives.
And recognizing where we are politically in terms of Iraq, they are not going to come hit America now, There is nothing more frightening to them than a terrified America. They saw what we were like after 9/11. They don’t want that.
Right now, as far as they are concerned they’ve got us on the ropes. They think we’re halfway there to just pulling out of Iraq. And if they come hit America, the American public is just going to explode and there will be a resurgence of demands on our government and our military to recommit to redouble aggressive military actions, not just in Iraq but in other countries. They’re not going to risk that. They’re not that stupid.
Fundamentally, they are afraid of us. This is why they use asymmetrical warfare. They will not go head to head against us. So the last thing they are going to do is incite a hostile reaction from us that they won’t be able to deal with. They are not combatants. They are predators. If they were combatants, they would come here and if they wanted a fight they would know where to go. They’d pull up to Fort Bragg, or Fort Benning, or Fort Carson and they’d get what they want from Special Forces. Or they’d show up at police headquarters. They’re not going to do that. Predators want easy victims. They don’t want to fight. And they don’t go looking for easy victims when there are protectors around.
Police Magazine editor David Griffith caught up with Giduck by phone as he was preparing to hit the road again, moving from agency to agency warning American cops that Beslan-type school sieges are coming to America.