| A mourner weeps outside the Moscow theatre on Monday. (AFP)
London, Oct. 28 (Reuters): Fourteen months ago, the idea that a country would use a secret military chemical warfare agent for a police operation in the centre of its own capital would have been unthinkable.
Welcome to the new world.
As Russians mourn the dead of the Moscow siege, you can bet politicians worldwide are asking one question of their security chiefs: Could we have pulled that off'
And the security chiefs are asking one question back: Would we have dared'
Nobody has ever held so many hostages in the heart of a major metropolis, threatening to kill them all. And security forces have never responded with anything like the mystery poison used by Russia on Saturday, which knocked out female Chechen guerrillas before they could detonate explosives strapped to their chests — and killed at least 115 hostages.
“I know that politicians have — since this hostage thing began — have been saying to their advisers: ‘Give me a plan here,’” said Paul Beaver, director of London-based security and defence consultancy Ashbourne Beaver Associates.
“What would we do' How soon can we fly our special forces into the city' Do we have a knockout gas like this' What is available'”
In the cold calculus of security planners, a hostage siege that ends with the demands of the captors unmet and fewer than 30 per cent of captives killed is considered a success.
By that standard, Russian special forces who used a lethal mystery knock-out gas to subdue Chechen rebels holding more than 800 hostages would have passed the test even if 240 had died. The media has been divided over whether Russian tactics were excessively harsh or brilliantly decisive.
But security experts say they would be hard pressed to come up with a better plan.
“My own feeling about the whole thing is that it would be better to look at this not in terms of the number of people who were killed, but in terms of the number who were saved,” said Major Charles Heyman, editor of Jane’s World Armies, whose expertise includes knowledge of special forces tactics. “It is very difficult to envisage any other solution than the one they adopted, especially if they started killing hostages.”
And most Western countries — where military-strength tactics and weapons are kept out of the hands of civilian police — would probably not have been able to pull it off. Since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Western leaders have been forced to confront the concept of military-scale threats erupting in the midst of the homeland. That means giving civilian authorities access to the military-strength capabilities.
“One of the key problems they have is matching the law and the politics with the capability. The civil power have the authority, but the military have the capabilites,” said Beaver.
“You had the same thing in the first days of September 11 in deciding who should give the order for a fighter aircraft to shoot down an airliner.”
In Moscow this week, paramilitary police units were able to take the decision to use a secret military poison gas only three days after rebels took the theatre. It is hard to imagine a Western democracy taking such a decision so quickly, just as it is hard to imagine another tactic that would have saved 80 per cent of the hostages.
“It would have to go in Britain to a Cabinet committee meeting. Same thing in the United States. The Russians don’t have this problem,” Beaver said.
Many have criticised the Russian authorities for keeping the nature of the gas a secret, something that would be difficult to imagine in the West, where victims’ families would demand to know what had been used. But unless there is an antidote to the gas — which seems unlikely — Heyman said the Russians are right to keep silent.
Welcome to the new world.