C.J. Chivers

Beware A Beslan-Style Attack Against U.S. Schools

On Monday, I finished reading a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent C.J. Chivers entitled The Gun, which discusses the origins and global impact of the Avtomat Kalashnikova, or AK-47, assault rifle. Interesting book for Kalashnikov fans and users of the platform, but potentially infuriating to supporters of the “black rifle,” or M-16 assault rifle, who insist the firearm’s initial shortcomings were exaggerated. The former Marine captain wrote:

The early M-16 and its ammunition formed a combination not ready for war. They were a flawed pair emerging from a flawed development history. Prone to malfunction, they were forced into troops’ hands through a clash of wills and egos in Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s Pentagon. Instead of a thoughtful progression from prototype to general-issue arm, the M-16s journey was marked by salesmanship, sham science, cover-ups, chicanery, incompetence, and no small amount of dishonesty by a gun manufacturer and senior American military officers. Its introduction to war was briefly heralded as a triumph of private industry and perceptive management, but swiftly became a monument to the hazards of hubris and the perils of rushing, and a study in military management gone awry.

Ouch. Anyway, while digging up more info on Chivers, I discovered that the New York Times senior writer received a National Magazine Award for his Esquire magazine piece on the Beslan, Russia, hostage-taking incident that took place in September 2004. On September 1, 2004, armed terrorists took more than 1,100 people hostage- including 777 children- at School Number One in the town of Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia. On the third day of the crisis, Russian security forces stormed the school and defeated the terrorists. 334 hostages, including 186 children, died in the event, and hundreds more were injured.

While some Pollyannas may think the “war on terror” is over now that Osama bin Laden is dead, realists in the counter-terrorism community continue to warn of potential terrorist attacks being launched against American interests here and abroad. Such strikes may even be expedited now as the result of the Al-Qaeda leader’s demise. Concerning terrorist acts being directed against the general public in the United States, Al-Qaeda “sleeper cells” may already be on the prowl within our borders. Richard A. Clarke, a counter-terrorism “czar” in the Clinton and both Bush administrations, wrote in the New York Times back on August 14, 2005:

Are there such sleeper cells here? An F.B.I. analysis, reported earlier this year, said that ”efforts to date have not revealed evidence of concealed cells . . . acting as sleepers.” Agonizing over the possibility that his agents had missed something, the F.B.I.’s director, Robert Mueller, admitted to being ”very concerned about what we are not seeing.” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, however, said that U.S. agencies ”are very active and aggressive in pursuing these cells,” adding, ”We’re continuing to conduct active investigations of other cells.”

(Editor’s note: Italics added for emphasis)

Someone doesn’t seem to be on the same page here.

In addition, Abdul Hameed Bakier of the Washington, D.C.-based think-tank The Jamestown Foundation (former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit Michael Scheuer is a senior fellow with Jamestown) pointed out more indications these cells might exist. Bakier wrote on January 15, 2008:

A 2005 FBI report stated that the agency had been unable to find conclusive evidence of the existence of such cells (ABC News, March 9, 2005), though comments on jihadi websites suggest that they exist. The militants are aware of the FBI’s concern about sleeper cells in the United States; each time pertinent information is released in U.S. media, jihadi posters write comments and prayers for the success of those cells.

(Editor’s note: Italics added for emphasis)

Even if sleeper cells don’t exist, how hard would it really be for an Al-Qaeda “strike force” to enter the United States across either of our borders. I used to handle immigration matters for a former U.S. Senator, and heard countless stories of how people got into the country illegally (“I followed a hiking trail that began on the Canadian side of the border, and the trail ended on the United States side, where I called a buddy to pick me up.”). I mean, if John Q. Alien can do it…

Regardless, if Al-Qaeda operatives are given the green light to carry out terrorist strikes against the U.S., despite all the homeland security measures put in place after 9/11, these individuals will still have a cornucopia of available targets to attack.

And no where is our soft underbelly more exposed than with the schools.

While a number of schools and districts have been proactive in planning and preparing for events ranging from the armed intruder to large scale man-made and natural disasters (funding and assistance provided by the U.S. Department of Education and other entities have helped significantly), exceptions abound. And such shortcomings make a Beslan-style hostage taking event attractive to terrorists wanting to strike at the heart of America with minimum initial fuss. Consider the following from Chivers’ Beslan piece, and the extent to which the terrorists caught the Russians off-guard:

The terrorists seemed to be everywhere. Zalina saw a man in a mask sprinting with a rifle. Then another. And a third. Many students in the formation had their backs to the advancing gunmen, but one side did not, and as Zalina sat confused, those students broke and ran. The formation disintegrated. Scores of balloons floated skyward as children released them. A cultivated sense of order became bedlam…

For many other hostages, recognition came slowly. Aida Archegova thought she was in a counterterrorism drill. Beslan is roughly 950 miles south of Moscow, in a zone destabilized by the Chechen wars. Police actions were part of life. “Is it exercises?” she asked a terrorist as he bounded past.

He stopped. “What are you, a fool?” he said.

Along with a Mumbai-style terrorist attack that I discussed back on April 28, the potential for a Beslan-type incident taking place on American soil should be taken seriously by the authorities and general public. Especially as these assaults have proved to be a success for the terrorists. If each of these worked once before, wouldn’t it make sense that the bad guys would be giving serious consideration to carrying out similar operations again?

You can read C.J. Chivers riveting Beslan piece on the Esquire website here. Be advised that it’s pretty graphic.


Chivers, C.J. The Gun. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Clarke, Richard A. “Finding the Sleeper Cells.” New York Times. 14 Aug. 2005. (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/14/magazine/WLN111054.html). 25 May 2011.

Bakier, Abdul Hameed. “The “Lone Wolf” and al-Qaeda Sleeper Cells in the United States.” Terrorism Focus (The Jamestown Foundation). 15 Jan. 2008. (http://www.jamestown.org/programs/gta/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=4653&tx_ttnews[backPid]=246&no_cache=1). 25 May 2011.

Chivers, C.J. “The School.” Esquire. 14 Mar. 2007. (http://www.esquire.com/features/ESQ0606BESLAN_140). 25 May 2011.

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