The Moscow Theater Hostage Crisis took place on the 23rd of October, 2002, in downtown Moscow at the Dubrovka Theater. Nearly 50 heavily armed male and female masked rebels took approximately 850 audience and staff members hostage during a sold-out performance of the musical, Nord-Ost. The rebels included three Chechen affiliated groups who were loyal allies with the Islamist Militant Separatist Movement in Chechnya, which was organized and led by 22-year-old Movsar Basayev. The purpose behind the attack was to demand the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya and consequently, influence the end of the Second Chechen War.
The siege began during the middle of a performance of Nord-Ost, Russia's first big-budget musical, which had recently become popular. Therefore, the crisis is also known as the 2002 Nord-Ost Siege. The Chechen terrorists entered through the front of the theater, disrupting the play by firing a machine gun into the air. Although initially, the patrons believed the intrusion to be part of the play, the rebels stopped the performance and kept the audience members in their seats at gunpoint. Around 22 of the rebels were female suicide bombers dressed in black, with explosives visibly seen strapped to their waists, yet their faces were covered. The remaining terrorists were young males dressed in military fatigues, holding grenades and rifles. They pushed the actors off the stage and ordered the musicians to come out of the orchestra’s pit. The militants rigged the doors, basement and attic with explosives to prevent exit or entry. Two large aircraft bombs each weighing 110 lbs. were brought in, one being placed within the audience in row 11 and the other on the balcony. They then announced to the hostages that they were “bringing the Chechen War to Moscow.”
During the hostage taking, Movsar Basayev allowed the captives to use their cell phones for contacting friends, relatives, authorities and the media to deliver information regarding the siege. Hostages included Americans, Australians, Brits, Germans, Austrians and the Dutch. The hostages were forced to use the orchestra pit as a toilet. Although reports vary, it’s estimated that approximately 30 hostages were released on the first night, including 15 to 20 children under 12 years of age, as well as a man with a heart problem. A 26-year-old woman by the name of Olga Romanova escaped being seen by authorities and entered the theater without authorization or police escort to confront the terrorists, and urge them to free the hostages. She became the first casualty when the rebels determined her to be a Federal Security Service (FSB) Agent and shot her. Police sealed off the building and three days of agonizing negotiations followed.
In addition to the immediate and total removal of Russian military forces from the Russian Republic of Chechnya, the war-ridden region north of the Caucasus Mountains, demands of the Chechens included instantaneous termination of the heavy weapons being used by Russia in Chechnya. Intense negotiations and violence continued, resulting in gunfire and hostages trying to fight their captors after being told no one would be getting out alive. Demands of the captors were uncompromising, suggesting they were driven by apocalyptic cultural and faith interpretations. However, Russian authorities stated they would not surrender to blackmail, which led to the terrorists releasing additional hostages 57 hours after the siege began. Hopes began increasing when the Red Cross announced 75 hostages were being released.
After two and one-half days, Russian Special Forces and snipers launched a raid and evacuation operation, surrounding the theater and entering through the theater’s sewage system. They thrust a powerful narcotic gas containing Fentanyl into the ventilation system in order to incapacitate the terrorists and eliminate the element of surprise so that they wouldn’t detonate the explosives they were threatening to use. What took place following the gassing was a fierce gun battle between Russian Special Forces and the male rebels. The female suicide bombers were shot in the head by snipers to prevent detonation of the explosives attached to their bodies. The opium-derived gas left more than 120 hostages and Chechen rebels dead, as well as their leader, Movsar Barayev. However, it was reported that 12 of the militants escaped the raid during the confusion and although police performed a search, their whereabouts remains unknown.
Casualties of the Moscow Theater Hostage Crisis consisted of 41 militants and 129 hostages, which included nine foreigners and ten children, however, no police officers were killed during the assault. According to Military spokesman, Sergei Ignatchenko, the militants started to execute the hostages when the raid began. Conversely, it was also reported that nearly all the captives were still alive after the terrorists were eliminated and that hostage casualties came as a result of succumbing to the toxic gas, having already been weakened from nervous exhaustion and dehydration. Many hostages died shortly after the raid from asphyxiation outside the theater and while being transported to the hospital. A high amount of controversy surrounding the use of the lethal gas left authorities forced to defend their actions, which were condemned by the media as “heavy handed.” The heated debate led to an investigation by experts that there was no apparent link between the gas and hostage casualties.
Reasons behind the hostage situation include the global war on terrorism, as asserted by President Vladimir Putin, in addition to the Chechens attempting to establish power. After the fall of the Soviet Union in December of 1991, Chechen separatists attempted to coordinate a campaign for independence in response to The Second Chechen War, also known as The Russian Chechen Conflict. President Vladimir Putin, as well as many other theorists claimed the crisis had roots in the al-Qaeda and the Islamist Separatist Movement.
The Moscow Theater Hostage Crisis resulted in a loss of innocent lives as a result of the international war on terrorism. The siege was due in large part to a Russian battle against Islamic fundamental extremists and The Second Chechen War. Although controversy surrounded the incident with regard to the way in which Russian Special Forces managed the raid and evacuation, the mission’s objective was to spare as many lives as possible. The terror experienced the night of October 23rd, 2002, by nearly 900 innocent citizens was merely the beginning of an escalation of extreme, future global violence.