The Threat from Swarm Attacks: Case Studies from the North Caucasus

May 22, 2012

Swarm attacks are high-risk, coordinated assaults sometimes directed against multiple targets or building complexes, using mobile groups to circumvent security measures, allowing attackers to inflict casualties, garner news coverage and, in recent years, to inflict considerable damage prior to the neutralization of the assailants.[1] In some cases particular methods have been melded, with one set of gunmen undertaking shooting sprees and hostage-taking, while another group of gunmen become involved in simultaneous barricade siege incidents.[2] Even though the label “swarm attack” has appeared relatively recently, and although, in a military context, the features and novelty associated with this tactic remain contested, the term has been adopted and applied more widely to describe these types of attacks.[3]

These hybrid operations—such as the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008—highlight the devastating impact that trained, mobile units can cause.[4] The Mumbai attacks lasted for around three days, generating a considerable amount of news coverage. The militants had lines of communication to external groups, further compounding the barricade siege situation that followed the initial assault.[5] Similar tactics were used in October 2009, when militants launched an audacious attack against the General Headquarters of the Pakistani Army in Rawalpindi; in June 2011, when suicide attackers targeted the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul; and in late 2011, when Pakistani militants targeted a high-security military base in central Karachi in a coordinated attack, leading to an extended barricade siege that lasted more than 18 hours. This wave of swarm attacks has been conducted by small groups of attackers, often numbering less than 10 individuals, in operations culminating in barricade-siege incidents.

In recent years, however, other swarm attacks—namely large-scale, multipronged attacks within insurgencies, in which attackers have withdrawn or managed to negotiate safe passage from a barricade siege incident—have also been executed. These attacks pose considerable problems for law enforcement agencies seeking to develop countermeasures, both within evolving counterinsurgency doctrines and also within counterterrorism policymaking circles. The scale of such attacks and the range of targets, which are often attacked simultaneously, means responders may have to remain mobile themselves, while those negotiating or responding from law enforcement agencies will also have to be highly trained and well coordinated to manage short-term fluid incident dynamics. The more permanent effects of such attacks are unforeseen political implications that come with acts of terrorism.

To understand the features of swarm attacks, a useful region of study is the North Caucasus. The North Caucasus is of particular interest due to the sheer number and scale of swarm attacks (Budyonnovsk, 1995; Kizlyar, 1996; Nazran, 2004; Nalchik, 2005); the melding of tactics by militants (Nord Ost, 2002; Beslan, 2004); and because countermeasures adopted by the federal authorities have been largely unsuccessful, illustrating the need, where possible, to adopt a managed and measured response to particular attacks.

Drawing on examples from the North Caucasus, this article will assess some of the tactical features of swarm attacks, leading to some policy-related themes and challenges that counterterrorism specialists may wish to consider.

The Budyonnovsk Hospital Raid
Over the years, insurgents linked to the North Caucasus have demonstrated a capacity to adapt and vary their use of tactics, including employing lightening raids, mass hostage-taking with suicidal intent, and barricade sieges.[6] Some attacks directed against building complexes have been barricade siege incidents, such as the October 2002 Nord Ost theater siege, or the September 2004 Beslan school siege.[7] In other swarm attacks, speed and mobility have been emphasized, such as in the June 2004 raid on Nazran, or the sortie in Nalchik in Kabardino-Balkaria in October 2005, in which lightening raids directed against multiple targets left scores dead and injured. Other attacks, including independent military operations, have also included an element of mass hostage taking and suicidal intent, such as the 1995 Budyonnovsk hospital raid. This latter attack is a perfect case study for specialists working on swarm attacks.

The raid itself began when dozens of lightly armed volunteers—led by Chechen militant Shamil Basaev—disembarked from a small group of trucks and split into three groups, simultaneously attacking three targets (the police headquarters, the town hall, and the local market). After the initial assault, the gunmen gathered hostages and established barricades around the town hall. The town hall was not suitable for a barricade siege, however, and by this point Basaev had a handful of injured men requiring medical attention. In the ensuing hours, and demonstrating a measure of improvisation, Basaev and his men used hostages as human shields, retreating to the local hospital, rejoining a small scouting party that had arrived some hours earlier, where they barricaded themselves into the building complex.

The speed of the raid caught federal officials off-guard. The mobility of the attackers, coupled with the detailed planning, clear lines of command-and-control, and the capacity to improvise enabled them to mine parts of the building and establish firing points in the hospital complex. The ensuing three day stand-off, in which the hostage-takers fought off repeated counterattacks by Russian assault teams, demonstrated that a large-scale, multipronged assault involving more than 100 assailants could provide a significant psychological blow within a broader war effort.[8] Eventually, the federal authorities negotiated an end to the incident, allowing the hostage-takers safe passage back to Chechnya.[9]

In the Budyonnovsk hospital raid, the capacity to learn and the ability to improvise during the swarm attack was evident. First, the capacity to use mobility to great effect in the opening phase of the assault was clearly significant. Second, the ability to improvise and show leadership during the assault was also essential; although more than 110 volunteers participated in the attack, a small cadre led by Basaev were experienced and loyal veteran Chechen fighters, some of whom had trained and fought alongside him in the Abkhaz civil war. Finally, both the target, deep in Russian territory, and the scale of the attack had a marked effect, signaling to the federal authorities a continued capacity to launch sophisticated and extremely deadly raids. These features were honed further following the outbreak of the regional anti-Russian conflict in April 1999. Evidently the experience—and the apparent success of the Budyonnovsk hospital raid—informed the use of mass hostage taking with suicidal intent in both the Nord Ost raid in Moscow in 2002 and the Beslan school siege in 2004.[10]

The Budyonnovsk raid is also of considerable importance for analysts and policymakers precisely because the attackers improvised during the incident, using mobility and subsequently commandeering a hospital building complex. From this complex, the militants used hostages to great effect, and manipulated the extended media coverage to shape the incident dynamics—while the timing of the raid, when Boris Yeltsin was traveling overseas, caused problems for the political and military leaders managing the incident. The military itself made a number of mistakes. Using heavy weapons, failing to secure a cordon around the hospital complex, and not having an adequate negotiation strategy all impacted the incident dynamics. Learning from the Budyonnovsk raid, law enforcement globally must develop variable strategies to manage incidents, drawing on a range of international examples.

The June 2004 Raid on Nazran
By 2004, Russian authorities had developed some security measures to protect against swarm attacks, including a clear chain of command and control, designed for federal forces to deal with hostage taking incidents and attacks directed against individual targets; the hardening of security around federal installations; and a longer term strategy, using sweep operations and checkpoints to isolate and eliminate small groups of attackers.

Yet in the Ingush city of Nazran on June 21, 2004, rebels altered their swarm tactics to circumvent Russian security measures. A multiethnic group of attackers launched a large-scale raid directed against multiple targets in Nazran, along with two other smaller attacks in local villages.[11] More than 100 attackers were involved in the raids directed against eight key federal targets in the city.[12] These included the Interior Ministry (MVD) building, police and security service barracks, as well as border guards stationed in the city. The attackers, disguised as local militia, established roadblocks and proceeded to kill around a dozen senior local political and military leaders, including the acting interior minister and his deputy. After five hours, having seized munitions from the MVD arms depot and taking around 20 local police officers as hostages, the attackers withdrew.[13] The mobility of the attackers, and their capacity to improvise during the raid, offered them a measure of operational autonomy. On occasion, it appears groups changed targets, having failed, for instance, to release political prisoners from the local jail. Similarly, the multipronged nature of the attack caused confusion for the local authorities.

The raid left around 100 law enforcement personnel, including half a dozen civilians, dead. In contrast, reports indicate that the attackers managed to withdraw with minimal losses. Indeed, the capacity to withdraw from such a large-scale raid highlights that this operation had also been meticulously planned. Reports from federal sources indicated that Shamil Basaev, along with a group of trusted aides, organized the raid.[14] Around six weeks later, rebel news outlets published a statement indicating that the multipronged raid was part of a series of regional attacks, indicating that the raid had a strategic character. At the same time, these reports also noted that the attack was timed to coincide with the national day of Memory and Sorrow in Russia, commemorating the invasion by Nazi Germany.[15] Even though the raid on Nazran was a swarm attack, it was also a symbolic sortie timed to impact the Russian military psyche, signaling to the federal authorities the continued capacity of the Basaev-led regional insurgency.

The raid on Nazran illustrates how groups themselves adapt their own strategies, impacting on incident dynamics, underscoring the role of communication technologies in, and the timing of, attacks, while also highlighting specific methods—such as simultaneous attacks on a range of targets and use of mobile groups—to amplify the impact of evolving tactics.

Evolving Tactics
A number of points differentiating the Nazran attack from the Budyonnovsk raid are worth underscoring, particularly insofar as they illustrate how swarm attacks were used, how they evolved and how Chechen-led groups sought to overcome countermeasures. First, unlike Budyonnovsk, which was almost exclusively launched by Chechen fighters, the raid in Nazran was conducted and led by local Ingush units, supported by a smaller number of Chechen units. The local knowledge of the Ingush raiders, coupled with the military experience and finance provided by the Basaev network, was difficult to counter; not only had the tactics evolved, but the broader issues, such as the motives for the attack, had also changed.[16] Reportedly, the operation was also part funded and planned by experienced foreign volunteers, linked to Shamil Basaev.[17] In particular then, a younger generation of capable Ingush volunteers, such as Ali Taziev (Emir Magas), used surprise and impudence to outwit security agencies in the North Caucasus in support of a regional insurgency.

Second, whereas Budyonnovsk was more than 43 miles from the conflict in Chechnya, the raiders in Ingushetia used their local knowledge to considerable effect. The raiders established their own temporary roadblocks, vetting traffic and cutting off all the roads to the city center. This disrupted official communications, hampering the movement of the local police, and compromising the management of the federal response.[18] The temporary roadblocks enabled the attackers to systematically check registration documentation—effectively allowing them to pull security personnel who were responding to the attacks from their vehicles. Meanwhile, other mobile groups sought to identify and kill other high-profile security and political personnel, neutering the capacity of the authorities to respond to such a large-scale incident.[19]

Third, Budyonnovsk was a direct result of federal actions in Chechnya, framed by the narrative of a secessionist conflict. In the raid in Nazran, it appears that small groups targeted the military and political hierarchy, reportedly responding to local instances of repression, killing and wounding scores of federal law enforcement officers.[20] Many of the groups also remained mobile, and the attacks were supported by diversionary raids in Ingushetia, as well as on the military highway in Ossetia, and further afield in Dagestan. The swarm attack on Nazran occurred over a period of around five hours, but then became part of a series of coordinated regional attacks as opposed to an independent, individual and isolated incident, like Budyonnovsk.

Fourth, while a degree of improvisation shaped the hospital raid—the attackers were perhaps aiming to target a military airbase near the town—the swarm attack in Nazran was explicitly directed against multiple targets, simultaneously. This increased the capacity of the attacks to overwhelm tactical responses and security measures designed to react to raids directed against single targets. The attackers also used a variety of methods such as temporary roadblocks, diversionary attacks, raids on security infrastructure and targeted assassinations.[21] Although hostages were taken in Nazran, this was neither a direct aim nor an improvised aspect of the attack; evidently the units needed to remain mobile to maximize their impact.

Fifth, the attackers in Nazran did not barricade themselves into buildings, but instead raided targets in a coordinated short-term operation, thereby overwhelming the security infrastructure in Nazran.[22] Police and MVD barracks were attacked, while the arms depot at the MVD building was also raided, before each group systematically retreated. In this regard, the attackers not only planned to withdraw, but also had long-term plans to disband, distribute and hide the significant amount of munitions they seized.[23]

The raid on Nazran also had a number of purposes. It was symbolic, but was also part of a broader long-term military strategy designed to destabilize the region, unlike the attack in Budyonnovsk in which attackers barricaded themselves in a building complex and were prepared to fight to the death.

Conclusion
Swarm attacks are a continued threat for policymakers and counterterrorism specialists, a point brought into sharp relief by the recent coordinated attacks in Kabul. Importantly, however, there are different forms of “swarm attacks,” in which a variety of methods are used. This leads to a number of key themes, as demonstrated in the two case studies.

First, some attacks start with shooting sprees, conducted by small highly mobile units, culminating in barricade siege incidents in fixed sites and buildings. Other forms of swarm attacks, involving large numbers of raiders, have occurred as well. Although culminating in barricade sieges, swarm attacks involving mass hostage taking, particularly in which the attackers have suicidal intent, are rare. Thus, the degree of mobility plays an important role in different types of swarm attacks.

Second, swarm attacks can be directed against multiple targets in coordinated operations, compounding the ability of law enforcement agencies to respond. In rare cases, such as through the examples used, groups and networks demonstrate a capacity to learn, tactically and strategically, in theater.

Third, the capacity to launch swarm attacks requires a measure of military capability, leadership, and a willingness and capacity. Few incidents appear to have occurred that have included improvisation during the assault themselves.

Finally, it is important not to ascribe incidents such as swarm attacks as wholly new, but rather to recognize how groups have adapted and varied their usage of these tactics as varying constraints are placed upon them. Virtually all of the attacks employed in recent years, including many aspects of the 2008 Mumbai raid, or the swarm attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, have in fact already occurred in the North Caucasus.

Cerwyn Moore is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Birmingham. His work focuses on the changing character of the armed resistance movement in the North Caucasus. He has published widely on foreign fighters, the Arab mujahidin, suicide operations, and the role of political Islam in the North Caucasus, in a host of academic journals and policy-oriented publications.

[1] For a review of the historical evolution of fidayin operations, see Adam Dolnik, “Fighting to the Death,” The RUSI Journal 155:2 (2010): pp. 60-68.

[2] Tom Monahan and Mark Stainbrook, “Learning the Lessons of the 2008 Mumbai Terrorist Attacks,” The Police Chief 78 (2011): pp. 24-32.

[3] See, for example, John Arquilla, “The Coming Swarm,” New York Times, February 14, 2009.

[4] John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Preventing Another Mumbai: Building a Police Operational Art,” CTC Sentinel 2:6 (2009).

[5] Dolnik, “Fighting to the Death.”

[6] Cerwyn Moore and Paul Tumelty, “Foreign Fighters and the Case of Chechnya: A Critical Assessment,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 31:5 (2008): pp. 412-433.

[7] Adam Dolnik and Keith Fitzgerald, Negotiating Hostage Crisis with the New Terrorists (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008).

[8] See, for example, A. Maskhadov, “Interview: Aslan Maskhadov,” 1999, available at www.smallwarsjournal.com/documents/maskhadovinterview.pdf.

[9] Cerwyn Moore, “Negotiating Hostage Crises in Russia: Mass Hostage-taking from Budyonnovsk to Beslan,” Research Paper, forthcoming 2012.

[10] Adam Dolnik, Negotiating the Impossible: The Beslan Hostage-Crisis (London: RUSI, 2007).

[11] ITAR-TASS, June 22, 2004.

[12]RIA Novosti, June 22, 2004.

[13]Kavkaz Tsentr, June 22, 2004.

[14] “Echo Ingushskih Sobityi,” Groznenskii Rabochii, July 29, 2004.

[15] Imran Rigkhoyev, “Ingush Battle Cry,” Daymokh, July 2004.

[16] “Chechen Interior Minister Names Suspects,” ITAR-TASS, June 22, 2004.

[17] TAR-TASS, July 20, 2004

[18] RIA Novosti, June 22, 2004.

[19] “Attackers were Ingushetians,” Kavkaz Tsentr, June 22, 2004.

[20] Liz Fuller, “Repercussions of Nazran Attack Still Reverberate,” RFE/RL, June 19, 2009.

[21] “Nightly Attack,” Kavkaz Tsentr, June 22, 2004.

[22] Viktor Baranets, “1500 Terrorists,” Komsoloskaya Pravda, June 24, 2004.

[23] Rigkhoyev.