Responding to School Sieges

Someday in the near future, an American community—probably far from an urban center—will find that one of its schools has been taken over by Muslim terrorists who are holding the students hostage. The time for American law enforcement officers to think about this possibility and train how to respond to it is now.

For most Americans, the September 2004 school siege and subsequent massacre in Beslan, Russia, was something distant, far away, and unreal. We tend to view most things that happen to others around the world with disinterest.

When 9/11 occurred, thousands of Russians placed flowers outside of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and wept for our loss, for what that atrocity meant for all humanity. When 330 Russian civilians-172 of them children-were murdered by Islamic terrorists at Beslan, most Americans noticed it only because it periodically interrupted coverage of the Kobe Bryant sex assault trial. Most of us did not grieve for the Russians, and most of us did not think about what the Beslan school massacre portended for the children of America.

Someday in the near future, an American community—probably far from an urban center—will find that one of its schools has been taken over by Muslim terrorists who are holding the students hostage. The time for American law enforcement officers to think about this possibility and train how to respond to it is now, before it has happened.

Know The Targets

Gather drawings, blueprints, schematics, floor plans, and walk-through videotapes of all schools in your community. Do this now, before you need it. Not only is this information critical for planning a response to a terror attack, it will be invaluable should you experience a-these days-all-too-common school shooting incident.

For smaller or more rural areas, this is not too difficult a task. For larger cities such as New York this effort must be broken down into the various boroughs and precincts, with each subdivision responsible for further dividing this need down to the patrol sectors.

Once you have this information on your local schools, start using them or buildings with similar floor plans to practice assaults. Whether you are a rural county sheriff's deputy, or belong to a SWAT, SERT, SRT, or SORT team-or any of the other permutations of tactical units-you have to practice regularly. This is particularly critical for agencies that pool their resources into multijurisdictional tactical teams. Not only do tactics have to be developed and used, but the team must also regularly operate together if it is ever to have a chance of doing so successfully in combat.

Train to Kill and to Rescue

Assaulting a school full of heavily armed terrorists who are holding hundreds of terrified hostages is beyond the pale of most officers' experience. If you're going to train to do this, you have to treat it as what it is: war. It's war in very cramped quarters with a lot of innocents in the way.

During the fight at Beslan, terrorists held children in front of them with knives to their throats and guns to their heads when Russian special forces teams entered the school. A number of these hostages were killed by having their throats cut or were shot in the battle. Casualties are a foregone conclusion when Muslim terrorists take hundreds of hostages. However, as one Russian special forces officer told me, "You must do everything possible to save the hostages, to save the children." Sadly, this may include shooting through the hostage to kill the terrorist before he can kill even more hostages.

Train to use maximum force and violence. In an assault of this type, there can be no going back, no withdrawal. Whatever the outcome of an effort by police to storm a building, it will pale in comparison to what the fallout will be if the assault team(s) withdraws and the terrorists are permitted to reassert control over the hostages.

Get Mean

The Muslim terrorist is on familiar territory in close up combat. You must be as well; indeed, you must be his superior. As the British SAS is fond of saying: "Your worst has got to be better than their best."

All this means that you have got to improve your close-quarter combat skills and techniques. In the 1960s and 1970s America's tunnel rats-men who were forced to go down into the Vietcong's fearsome tunnel network armed with merely a knife, a handgun, and a flashlight-developed a shooting system for close work in which the pistol was held in a combat-ready position, close in to the chest to prevent disarming. In the confines of many buildings it would likewise be impossible to "present" the firearm at arm's length, out away from the body as is taught by the Isosceles, Chapman, and Weaver shooting stances of old.

And do not think for a second your SWAT team will simply "roll right over the bad guys," as I have heard numerous tactical commanders say when rationalizing their refusal to train in realistic hand-to-hand combat skills and/or integrating those skills with close-quarter handgun techniques and transition drills.

Accepting the necessity of developing this next generation of combat techniques is not enough. You must train to execute. You must be able to shoot with extreme accuracy and speed. These are the skills that will make you capable of killing the person holding a child up as a shield and not hit that child, and they are the skills that will give you the confidence to move to the sound of the gunfire.

Through years of travels and training others I have seen an increasing reliance on the spray and pray approach to combat. This is what technology, money (to buy bullets), and fear of close-quarter combat do to a warrior. Don't let them do it to you.[PAGEBREAK]

Justice from Above

You see a lot of photos in magazines of well-funded, well-equipped SWAT teams like the FBI Hostage Rescue Team fast roping out of helicopters onto the roofs of their objectives. I know that many agencies don't have these kinds of resources but, if you do, train to use them.

Law enforcement is behind the curve in adopting helicopters and employing them in less conventional operations. While some departments do maintain choppers and pilots, few, if any, have ever prepared fast rope teams to be inserted from them, or even an "air assault" landing and insertion capability for their SWAT teams along the lines of that used by the Air Cavalry.

Yes, I know helicopters are dangerous, have an unappealing crash rate, and training in such techniques as rappelling or deploying from them is certain to result in many injuries and not a few deaths. But we are far beyond the point where America can afford to continue making every decision for her survival constrained by a naĂŻve social expectation that nothing bad ever happens to anyone and undertaking anything risky is negligent.

According to some of the Russians, this type of assault would not have worked at Beslan. They feel fast rope teams are "too fancy" and take a lot of training. Commanders repeated concerns that helicopters can be easily shot out of the sky with a single RPG, and that they must be used with a combination of other things and never alone. They feel that at Beslan, after the explosions, the arrival of choppers with deployable soldiers would have been even less effective.

I disagree. Helicopters-though expensive-are a tool that can and should be employed if possible. If in the midst of a battle to rescue hostages, it is determined the helicopters are not beneficial, they do not have to be used for the assault.

One thing is certain, however; helicopters will be a great asset after the assault. They can be used to convey the seriously wounded to area hospitals more quickly than land-based vehicles.

Getting Inside

Getting in position to enter the school is just the first step. Next, you have to get inside.

The terrorists know this, and they will be waiting for you. It's likely that any door to the roof will be wired with explosives, barricaded, or guarded, and an ambush will be prepared for you.

So how do you get in?

You will have to use explosives to breach walls, floors, and roofs for quick entry. Russian special forces units are famous for their "Mouse Hole Charges" that blow holes in walls just large enough for individual operators, fully outfitted in tactical equipment, to move through quickly.

Not only is this an effective way of entering the building, it comes with an added benefit. The explosion itself is sufficient to have an immediate effect on anyone within a small radius. The paralyzing impact of the explosion provides the assault team sufficient time to move operators through the hole and begin engaging the terrorists. When coordinated with simultaneous entry from other points, it is a devastating tactic, and was used with great success in the gym at Beslan.

The Russians are nonplussed that most of American law enforcement has, at best, weak charges that can perhaps breach a door lock. They correctly point out that terrorists will always have the existing points of ingress under surveillance. Windows will also be watched, and both windows and doors will likely be wired with explosives. Wall breaching charges will be essential to your response to a school siege. Do what you can to convince your local civilian oversight that you need this tool in your box. It's better to have it and never need it than to not have it when kids' lives are on the line.[PAGEBREAK]

Take It With You

The following are some guidelines on essential tools law enforcement should have at the ready during a terrorist hostage siege.

Ammo: Bring as much ammunition as possible. Once the battle is on, you cannot afford to withdraw, or worse, get killed, for lack of an ability to shoot back.

U.S. law enforcement must change its attitude and policies regarding numbers of rounds carried by officers if they are to have a chance in a real terrorist battle. Most SWAT snipers will arrive at a tactical situation with 60, 80, maybe even 100 rounds of ammunition. In a situation like Beslan, a sniper with 120 rounds would be good for no more than four minutes of actual battle. That is 30 rounds per minute to take out targets and provide covering fire for the assault teams and escaping hostages. The battle at Beslan went on for 11 hours, with no less than eight hours of intense fighting.

Body Armor: It goes without saying that all of your officers will have vests. If possible, body armor must be carried for hostages as well. And the armor may not be enough to protect them. If you are forced to move the hostages through fields of fire, you may have to be as brave as the men of Alpha and Vympel (Russian special forces) at Beslan, covering the running forms of the hostages with your own bodies, taking the bullets meant for the innocents.

Flashbangs: Notwithstanding the Russian perspective on their use, noise distraction devices can be very valuable. In America, where narcotic gas is unlikely to be available, flashbang grenades may be the next best thing.

Communications: Communications must be compatible with all responding agencies. Before a building is stormed, this must be checked and re-checked. Do not allow your jurisdiction to suffer from a communications deficiency. Even if it means doing nothing more than going to Radio Shack to purchase cheap multiple unit systems that can be shared in a crisis, do it now.

Restraints: You may take prisoners. If that happens, you'll need flex cuffs. Make sure they are pre-threaded, with the tongues inserted through the locking eyes. Trying to lace these through in the heat of battle when adrenaline is raging through your system is next to impossible.

Night Vision Equipment: Every operator should have a night optical device at all times. Just because it is 5 a.m. when you launch your assault does not mean you won't need night vision. And make sure that your night vision equipment is ready and with you at all times. If electricity has been shut off inside, you may find yourself in the dark recesses of a building, in rooms with no windows or a school basement. You can bet the terrorists will have night vision capability. So should you.

Gloves: If explosives are detonated, there will be large pieces of the building, splintered furniture, and twisted metal and rebar that will have to be negotiated, bent, or moved. Some items may be burning hot to the touch. You may also have to punch through a window, bend fencing, or tear out an obstructing metal window frame.

First-Aid Kits: Everyone should have them as part of their tactical gear, secured to their tactical vests or harnesses. Super Glue can quickly close any wound that requires stitches. Tampons are the single best item for stemming blood flow from deep wounds. Small needle nose pliers are not only useful as a mechanical tool in an emergency, but can serve as clamps for uncontrollable bleeding to major arteries when hemostats are unavailable or already in use. In such circumstances, don't worry about germs. If the person lives the doctors can deal with the infection later.

Footwear: Everyone should have on good tactical or combat boots, with the laces tucked in.

At Beslan, when I first entered the school, I could barely negotiate it. The school was a warren of twisted wreckage, boulders of building material, and blown out floors. Moving through it was like leaping from one unsteady, slippery rock in the middle of a rushing stream to the next.

In the U.S., I have worked with enough SWAT teams to recognize that most have not been conditioned to completely secure their laces. In Beslan, you could not have moved 15 feet in any direction without snagging exposed laces on something and falling flat on your face, maybe onto a booby trap. Double knot your boot laces, twist and tuck them in tight, then wind electrical tape around to secure them Water-Combat is exhausting. You will need water and lots of it. Remember, once inside you will not be coming out for a rest. It could be 10 hours or more. You must have water to allow you to remain an effective fighting tool. And even if you don't need it, the hostages you save will.

The Non-Lethal Option

When Muslim terrorists seized nearly a thousand hostages at the Nord-Ost Theater in Moscow, Russian special forces tried to end the siege by pumping knockout gas into the theater.

In many ways, this audacious plan worked. All 42 terrorists were killed in the subsequent assault by Russian tactical teams and many hostages were rescued. Unfortunately, the plan was not thought through as well as it should have been. Medical personnel was not on hand to tend to the hostages, and 129 of them were killed by the effects of the gas. One died from gunshot wounds received during the assault.

Though a generally revolting notion to Americans culturally, we may have reached the point where the federal government and law enforcement weapons manufacturers must start working on developing gas that can be used effectively in hostage situations.

After 9/11 a proposal was made that all commercial aircraft be outfitted with sleep-inducing gas capability through the air conditioning systems. In the event of an attempted hijacking, the use of gas would put everyone outside of the cockpit to sleep. This met with strong-even outraged-opposition. Obviously, the death toll and infrastructure damage we suffered on Sept. 11, 2001, were insufficient to budge the sensibilities of Americans in confronting certain tactics, no matter how effective.

The Russians have accurately pointed out a number of reasons why the use of gas cannot hurt a situation, merely help it or be of no consequence. Perhaps it is time we gave it due consideration.

At the Nord-Ost Theater the Russians employed what is believed to be a fentanyl-based agent some have referred to as M-99. While fentanyl or other currently existing agents may be too powerful and potentially lethal, milder sleeping substances can certainly be developed for tactical use.

You have a growing arsenal of non-lethal weapons, including impact rounds, Tasers, OC gases, and many more now in development. Even the Defense Department has gotten involved in non-lethal weapon development, engaging in research into laser and microwave weapons whose heat delivery can neutralize an enemy due to the excruciating pain that is created, even from ranges of hundreds of meters. Such weapons may prove to be our best options for ending sieges by hardcore terrorists. Consequently, the development of these weapons is critical and should be funded now.

In the meantime, your goal in your assault is to save as many hostages as possible. If you can do that by killing the terrorists, do it. If you can do it by capturing the terrorists, then do it. The only thing that really matters is saving the innocent.

This article was excerpted from "Terror at Beslan" by John Giduck. Long a student of Russian culture and language, Giduck is president of Archangel, a Colorado-based consultancy that trains U.S. law enforcement and military in anti-terrorism tactics.

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