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The strong negotiate
Written by   
, 29 2007
In ‘Novaya Gazeta’, by Elena Milashina
How to subdue the terrorists at will without bringing in tanks and flamethrowers for directfire
It has been three years since the Beslan terrorist attack. Itwas a national tragedy, and does not go to the periphery of our consciousness. Beslan’s lessons need to be studied, whether the authorities wish it, or not. Fromevery corner of the world, they are now coming to Beslan in order to learn this.

After Beslan, it was clear that we have very well trained storm troopers. These are people who can sweep any obstacle from the face of the earth. Whatwe do not have, however, are enough people who could help avoid such a disastrous turn of events.

What can professional negotiators do? Wasthere an opportunity calm down ‘Nord-Ost’ and Beslan to lessen the casualties? Arenegotiations a sign of weakness, or strength, and is it finally time to for Russian to learn this, since it is, literally, ‘a matter of life or death’?

We offer our readers an interview with one of the world’s most renowned experts in the field of professional negotiations, Dr. AdamDolnik.
The ‘Novaya’ Dossier

Adam Dolnik, PhD, is the director of research programs and a senior specialist at the Center to Prevent International Crimes, University of Wollongong (Australia). Hehas worked as a chief instructor at the International Center for Research in Political Violence and Terrorism in Singapore. Heparticipated in a project to study the problem of the terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction that was held by the Monterey Institute of International Studies (California) and the UN Office for the Prevention of Terrorism (Vienna).

Dr Adam Dolnik constantly lectures, conducts seminars, and advises government intelligence agencies and private organizations in more than thirty countries, including Germany, China, Afghanistan, Colombia, Japan, Britain, Philippines, USA, etc. Heis an expert and the author of practical research projects on various terrorist organizations. Heis the author of: “The Evolution of Terrorism: Technology, Tactics and Global Trends” (Rutledge, 2007), “The new political terrorism, and particularly the negotiation process during a mass hostage event” (Praeger Security International, 2007), “Beslan. Werenegotiations impossible?” (The Royal United Services Institute, 2007). Heis also the author of more than 40reports and articles on topics related to terrorism.

He has been studying the specificity of terrorist organizations in Russia, as well as the methods Russian intelligence agencies have used to fight terrorism since the first Chechen campaign.

This interview was recorded in Beslan during the summer of 2007.

Adam, you maintain that the Beslan terrorist attack, as far as the environment for professional negotiations, could be considered an event of the highest category of complexity. Doesthis mean that negotiators in Beslan were powerless?

All of the accumulated experience of the world today is absolutely unsuitable and unprepared for situations such as Beslan, and here is why: in Beslan, even during the seizure of hostages, people were being killed, and one of the main principles of the negotiation process is that as soon as the hostages are killed, negotiations have become virtually impossible. After this, negotiators occupy a secondary role. Thatis, they negotiate only in order to gain time for the security forces to prepare a combat operation.

If there had been a Beslan in America, Iam not sure if it would have ended much better than it did in Russia. Idraw this conclusion based on the experience of communicating and working with the people responsible for the resolution of similar situations in America. Ido not wish to say that FBI or police experts would have acted the same, but most likely there would have been panic among the national political leaders, and officials at the highest level would have influenced the developments in the direction of a forceful outcome.

This does not remove the main problem in these circumstances. Whenyou have more than a thousand hostages, when everything is booby trapped, when the militants are not just ready to blow up the hostages, but also to die alongside them, in this situation is a combat operation really the best way to rescue hostages?

So, this is the conclusion that Icame to. Thekilling of several hostages during attacks such as Beslan still does not negate the effectiveness of the negotiation process for the release of the surviving hostages. Ifyou analyze whom the terrorists killed during the capture (of the school), then we can understand why they did this.

Take for example Ruslan Betrozov, who was killed during the first hours of capture, in the presence of his children and in a gym full of hostages. Theterrorists from the outset ordered everyone to speak only in Russian, but Betrozov stood up and translated the terrorists’ instructions and demands into the Ossetian language. Hedid exactly what the terrorists had forbidden. Hedid not obey. Thatis why he came under attack, as he provoked a situation in which the terrorists were forced to act. Thisdoes not absolve the terrorists morally and legally for the responsibility of the death of this brave man, but for negotiators it is extremely important to understand the motives and circumstances surrounding the killing of hostages. After all, this is not the same as when terrorists randomly select a child from the hostages and then shoot him in the head in front of everyone.

In Russia, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin’s participation in negotiations in Budennovsk is mostly seen as a demonstration of the weakness of the authorities back then.

First of all, we must clearly understand that negotiation by no means is a concession to the terrorists, or an unconditional fulfillment of all their demands. Negotiation is a very complex process that aims to have a psychological effect on terrorists and on their behavior. Inextreme situations such as Budyonnovsk it is simply a must, but the fact is that in Budyonnovsk so many mistakes were made that Chernomyrdin’s participation was still not enough to save the situation.

A significant error made was the reluctance of the intelligence agencies to negotiate with terrorists from the outset. Forexample, there was a situation when Basayev demanded a press conference and the authorities refused to even discuss the demand. SoBasayev had several police officers shot. Theresponse of the authorities: “Well, let's give them a press conference.” But we cannot encourage such behavior by terrorists. Whatshould have been done was to begin negotiations from the outset. Forexample, from the outset terrorists set unrealistic demands such as the removal of troops from Chechnya. Youknow that you cannot do it, so you do not negotiate about it. Thisis erroneous. There are very many possible options between the two extremes of “fully satisfying terrorist demands” and “we do not negotiate with terrorists.”

As Isaid, negotiating is the ability to influence. Ifwe want to influence someone’s decision we must understand his way of thinking.

An effective negotiator is one who knows how to listen and then ask what we call ‘good questions’. Inresponse to an impossible demand such as withdraw troops, you have to ask Basayev: “Why do you need this?” It would seem that the answer to this question would be obvious, right? Everyone knows the answer to this question, but still you ask this question and then they start talking about human rights abuses in Chechnya, about ‘sweeps’, and how civilians are being killed in Chechnya. Thenyou draw them into a conversation about their own personal experiences: “What happened to you?” Ali (a terrorist during the Beslan school siege EM) told hostages that he had lost his wife and five children during a bombardment. Ifthey will talk about it with hostages, then they will tell it to negotiators by telephone. Ofcourse, remembering this will make a terrorist angry and emotional. Hewill scream over the phone: “You killed my family!” But now the negotiator has the chance to say: “I’M SORRY. Foryou, it must have been terrible.” You are not giving up any position in saying this, but you are showing that you understand why he is angry. Youwould have reacted the same way had it been your family killed, but at the same time you tell him that nothing can justify the killing of children. Later in the negotiation process, you already have an opportunity to provide a psychological effect on terrorists and to persuade them to release at least the youngest hostages.

Perhaps this sounds a bit primitive. Yes, and it is impossible, of course, to give any kind of a strict rule, because every situation is different. Ingeneral, however, this is an example of how one should set up the negotiation process.

Empathy is the key to influence. Inthis it is important to understand that empathy does not necessarily mean sympathy, just as understanding does not mean agreement.

Can it be somehow explained why the terrorists did not blow up the hostages at ‘Nord-Ost’ and Beslan?

At ‘Nord-Ost’ it was more evident. Thisterror attack was more specific. Itwas clearly organized because Basayev wanted to change the rules of the game, to return to the tactics that once worked so well in Budyonnovsk. Thegeneral idea of the attack was to create a very complicated political situation for the Kremlin and to grab the worldwide media and draw their attention to Chechnya.

Basayev understood that the probability of an assault was very high. Ifit was possible to achieve the withdrawal of troops from Chechnya, that would be good, but if not, Basayev was going to make an assault very difficult for the Russian security services by killing as many people as possible, and in the end this is what happened almost every hostage who died, died because of the gas. Thiswas a political maneuver. Theterrorists did not come to kill the hostages, but, on the contrary, they were ready to release the hostages. Whydo Ithink this? Thegas was released into the music hall more than 20minutes (before the assault EM), and the terrorists saw the gas as it was being released. Theywere able to blow up the auditorium, and even if the bombs had been faulty, they had time to shoot the hostages with automatic weapons. Theydid not, however, and there was a reason for this.

What do the experts now tell you about this situation? Would it have been possible to negotiate the release of hostages?

As for ‘Nord-Ost’, Iam on 99.9 percent confident that people could have been released through a negotiating process on a professional level, but what in this case does professional mean? Ihave already said that such attacks are different from the usual taking of hostages. Inthe usual hostage situation, the police at least prevent outsiders from interfering in the negotiation process. At‘Nord-Ost’, we can say that the participation of Anna Politkovskaya in the negotiations was a good opportunity to influence the terrorists, but here is what Idiscovered from talking with Anna, and it worries me very much. Before she was supposed to go, she was not given any instructions whatsoever. Shewas not told how to behave. Theydid not tell her what proposals she might make to the militants, they did not tell her what to ask them, they did not instruct her whether it was dangerous or not to look the terrorists in the eye, or how long she might remain be inside the theatrical center. Everything was as follows: “If you want to go in there, well and go ahead!” And when she came out, all they asked was how many terrorists had she seen, and what kind of shoes were they wearing. Thisfact amply indicates the professional level of the operation’s leadership!

During ‘Nord-Ost’, why did the media actively talk about the phenomenon of ‘Stockholm syndrome’, but not at Beslan?

In Beslan, the terrorists treated the hostages very poorly

At ‘Nord-Ost’ it was the same

No, at ‘Nord-Ost’ the militants allowed people to eat and drink. At‘Nord-Ost’ they did not kill any hostages. Theykilled three people who tried to enter the auditorium after the hostage crisis began, but only to show that they were in control of the situation. There is much evidence that terrorists definitely liked the hostages and that is one reason why they did not kill them. These relationships are called Stockholm syndrome.

Stockholm syndrome is not only when the hostages are emotionally imbued with the terrorists, but also vice versa?

The situation develops at both ends, and it is very interesting from the political standpoint. Stockholm syndrome is what governments hate, because the hostages go and start to defend the terrorists and toss all the blame onto the government. Negotiators, however, like Stockholm syndrome. Thenegotiator is simply obliged to instigate and encourage the formation of this syndrome by any means possible, because if the terrorists and the hostages would like each other, then it would be less likely that the hostages will do something stupid that will cause a severe reaction on the part of the terrorists. Theterrorists, in turn, would find it extremely difficult to decide to kill hostages for whom they feel sympathy. Theway to form Stockholm syndrome is to make the terrorists and the hostages interact with each other.

Is there a practice in other countries of providing for analysis recordings of the negotiating process with terrorists?

Yes, there is such a practice. InAmerican, for example, this is even provided for by law.

How would you rate the professional activities of Vitaly Zangionov, the official negotiator from the North Ossetia FSB (at Beslan)?

Igot the impression that Zangionov was acting completely in accordance with instructions, as if in front of him he had a negotiations textbook. Hewould ask: “Do you need a doctor? Doyou need the media? Doyou need safe passage?” The problem was that the negotiation process was just a formality. Itwas only to create an alibi: “We have done everything possible, we offered them this-and-that, and they have not accepted our offer. Whatelse could we do?”

But the thing is, these are people who have prepared for months for this operation (hostage taking), and we cannot just tell them on the second day of the hostage taking that they are free to withdraw from the school. Theydescribe themselves as suicide bombers willing to die for their goal, and then you go and tell them that they can go home? Yes, of course they will not agree! Ifyou made them that proposal, say, three months after the hostage taking, by then their reaction might be different Thelogic of the people who seized the hostages, to them it seems that they have enormous power, so they ask you for a million dollars and a plane, but 12or 15hours later they will ask for a hamburger and a moped. There is a change of expectations and goals, a change in the hierarchy of needs (priorities). Thenegotiation process is a process of lowering the demands and needs of the terrorists. Fornegotiators, therefore, time is very important. Thelonger the situation drags on, the more opportunities there are to reach an agreement or release more hostages.

But as we have seen at ‘Nord-Ost’ and Beslan, even official negotiators did not have much time.

Yes, there was an ultimatum with a clearly defined time limit: if you do not release the hostages in three days, there will be an assault. Thisis a huge problem, by the way, when it is the government that is doing this. Negotiators already have enough reasons for stress, without putting a deadline on them.

But there was no official deadline at ‘Nord-Ost’, and not really one at Beslan. Onthe contrary, the authorities stated publicly that negotiations would continue, and that new people were coming to the process

Italked a lot with Larissa Kudzieva (a very brave woman who was able to make contact with the terrorists in the gym and thus assist many of the hostages EM), she is, by the way, an extremely good negotiator by nature. Themilitant Ali, who talked with Zangionov (by phone), told Kudzieva that he did not want to blow up the school, but on the phone they told him that Russia would never negotiate with terrorists and that the militants had three days to think about it. Ifwe carefully analyze the events in Budennovsk, Kizlyar, and ‘Nord-Ost’, it is obvious that the military operation takes place on the third day, often the night before the third day. Andthus it happened (at Beslan). Inside the school, of course, they were also aware of the importance of the third day, and many hostages said that the terrorists on that day dramatically changed their behavior: it became aggressive, dictatorial, and hopeless.

In this context, what do you think about the initiative by Dzasokhov and Aushev to involve Maskhadov in negotiations?

Aushev told me that it was his initiative. Politkovskaya also played a part by trying to attract Maskhadov through Zakayev on the first day of the hostage taking. Ina pure case (and this applies to negotiators who want just one thing to release the hostages) you want to attract the maximum amount of resources for this. Maskhadov would have been a very strong resource to have an effect on the terrorists.

Do you think that if Maskhadov, or at least Zakayev, had come to Beslan, it could have saved the hostages?

Ithink, first of all, Maskhadov and Zakayev could not have come to Beslan. Thiswas ruled out. TheKremlin could not afford for Maskhadov the terrorist to save hostages. Theycould not allow him to become a hero.

It was a problem of losing face?


If Maskhadov were too controversial a figure for the negotiation process, at the time could it have been possible to find someone more acceptable?

Ithink it could have been possible to use Aushev more efficiently. Hewas respected among the terrorists. Hewent into school, and brought out mothers with children. Thenagain, the authorities had the same problem as with Maskhadov, but to a lesser extent, of course. Thisinformal leader, the former president of Ingushetia, Aushev, could have become a hero, and the Kremlin did not need that, because of the prevailing local policy in the Caucasus. Thatis the only explanation that Ican find, as to why they so poorly used Aushev as a resource. After all, he could well have convinced the terrorists to release the children from the school. Sowhy was he not used? Ijust do not understand this.

For all three days, the terrorists insisted on the appearance of four people at the school: Zyazikov, Dzasokhov, Roshal, and Aslakhanov. Could the operational headquarters meet this demand?

Iam almost certain that the terrorists would have killed Zyazikov. There had been several (assassination) attempts on him before Beslan (and these efforts continue to this day EM). Asfar as Dzasokhov, Roshal and Aslakhanov, Iam not sure, but of course, the risk was very high.

Perhaps it they were right not to let anyone go there?

This is a question of negotiating tactics. Ifyou put the question thus: all or nothing, then you are in a dead end. Would you like to hear my vision of what the headquarters should have done in response to the demand to bring these four to the school? First of all, you do everything possible that these four men come to Beslan as quickly as possible. Putthem on television. Themilitants watched television and would know that the four were in Beslan. Thenyou say: “You wanted them to come, they are here and ready to talk with you over the phone.” The terrorists will say that all of them together must enter the school. Youranswer: “They are brave people. Theyare willing to do anything to save the children, but I’m the head of the operational headquarters and Icannot let them go to the school without a guarantee from you that you will not kill them. Publicly guarantee their safety!” If terrorists provide such guarantees, then the question becomes a purely political one, o the personal responsibility of the terrorists who summoned them for negotiations whether or not to start (negotiations). So, Iwould have made sure that the four arrived, but Iwould have tried to influence the terrorists by openly asking them: “You want to kill these people? Yousummoned them to Beslan for this?” If the terrorists guarantee their safety, Iwould then ask them to somehow demonstrate their goodwill. Forexample, a very good demand would be to release all children less than 7years of age.

Could we believe the terrorists here?

On the basis of my personal experience and years of studying the behavior of terrorists, yes. Theyare very rational people. Theyknow exactly what they are doing. Theyare ready to deliver on their promises. Ifthey did not keep their word, and killed one of those four, Iwould then use it to permanently discredit them in front of the whole world and expose them as ordinary murderers. Theyare not commonplace killers, however, and that is the point.

So, you believe that these four should certainly have been brought to Beslan?

Iam certain of it. Ifthese people had come to Beslan, the authorities would not have lost face in any way since it was not a concession to terrorists. Itwould only show that the government is ready to negotiate if the terrorists demonstrate their good will. Thisis what is called negotiations.

A last question: have Russian security services ever asked you for help in the training of professional negotiators?

No, Russia never asks for help. Whenyou come here, you are a spy. Other countries invite me for lectures, seminars, and training. Theypay for it. Icome to Russia at my own expense and Iam always under suspicion. Experts in negotiations from Israel, U.S., France and other countries offered their assistance during Beslan, but were refused.


On the eve of the third anniversary of the Beslan terrorist attack, 81% of Russians do not believe the government version of the events that took place in the school in 2004. These results were obtained after a comparative analysis of public opinion polls carried out by the Levada Center immediately after the terror attack, and today.

It turns out that a vast majority of respondents still suspect a conspiracy by the authorities in attempting to hush up the events of September 13. Suchan opinion was expressed by 81% of the respondents who gave answers such as ‘they are hiding the truth’, ‘they only tell us part of the truth’, and ‘they are deliberately misleading us’. ‘Gazeta’ GZT.ru noted that in 2004, right after the events, 83% thought the same (a difference that is less than statistical error).

The Levada Center survey found another surprising result: fewer and fewer inhabitants (of Russia) require victory over the terrorists at any cost. In2006, 30% of respondents believed that the authorities must make sacrifices, but not give in to political demands of the terrorists. In2007, this number of respondents declined to 18%. Rising 9% (from 57to 66%) were the number who believe the death of innocent people is too high a price and are ready to make concessions to the bandits for the sake of saving lives of the hostages.

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