The recent commercial bus hijacking in southern Russia and subsequent successful Bus Takedown by Russian security forces illustrates a fundamental success formula for tactical units: if offensive action becomes necessary, stick to the basics. In tactical offensive operations, Surprise, Speed, and Aggressive Action are the cornerstones of sound tactics.
All offensive action is geared to leverage the Element of Surprise. It has been well proven that preservation of surprise yields the greatest opportunity for operational success. Yet, many fail to realize that at some instance, that surprise element will always be compromised. It is the goal of the employed tactical unit to ensure that they are within reasonable striking range of the target when that compromise does finally take place.
The critical movement of any striking element from its last cover and concealment to the target is known as Target Penetration. It is during Target Penetration that the greatest risk of compromise is present.
Compromise distancing is nowhere more critical than during hostage rescue Target Penetration. During hostage rescue operations, compromise at a distance outside reasonable striking range can seal a lethal fate for hostages; thus it is all the more critical to a rescue force. When compromise does take place - and the rescue force must clearly understand that compromise will always take place at some point - then all action dynamics change. At the point of compromise - the actual point where Surprise is lost - action dynamics must shift completely to Speed and Aggressive Action.
If the rescue force can control the point of compromise, they will take advantage of minimizing distance in order to be in a position to strike. If they lose that control, and compromise takes place prior to being close enough to act with reasonable assurance of success, then other means must be preplanned and built into the tactical execution to leverage a better chance for success.
Once compromise does take place, there is no room for error. Tempo must be swift, routes must be as direct as possible, and action must employ the precise application of violence in a direction, angle, and amount required for immediate results. Aggressiveness characterizes the action, but violence is only delivered when and where the force determines, in precise and measured amounts, sufficient to accomplish the task immediately and completely.
At about 0645 local on 07-31-01, a commercial Russian bus carrying more than 40 people was hijacked near the Chechen border. One young male hostage was shot during the seizure. At first, authorities believed two hijackers were involved. The bus was then forced along a major highway toward the airport in Mineralnye Vody, a resort town near the Chechen border. It was subsequently blockaded by authorities just outside the airport and sealed off with government forces, fire trucks, and ambulances. The bus came to a halt in an elevated section of the road.
Curtains were pulled down on the windows from inside the bus to help conceal the actions and exact position of the lone hijacker. The 26-year old** male hijacker was an ethnic Chechen who demanded the release of 5 other Chechens who had also hijacked a bus in 1994. The hijacker carried 1.5 kilograms of dynamite in a cloth bag underneath his shirt, three F-1 hand grenades, and an AK-47 assault rifle.
Authorities were faced with a significant problem. At least one hijacker was known to be present, and possibly another. The hijacker was known to be Chechen, had hijacked and taken hostages in the past, and had proven to be a deadly adversary. The one known bus hijacker was a male in his mid-30s**; essentially in his physical prime, thus his reflexes and attentiveness would likely be good. Additionally, he was well armed with a firearm that could defeat most rescue force body armor and explosives that could be almost instantly activated.
Hostages broke two windows during the daylong standoff in order to circulate air in the sweltering heat. Two Federal Security Service (FSB) negotiators spoke with the hijacker during the standoff. As the day wore on, the hijacker freed about a dozen people from the bus, including the hostage who had been shot and all children. This leveraged two important advantages for rescuers. First, debriefing released hostages nearly always provides important information for tactical units. Secondly, in this instance, there were fewer hostages at risk should the team be called to action, a very important accomplishment by the negotiators. The hijacker fired his weapon into the air several times during the day to emphasize his demands as he grew more agitated and unpredictable.
The FSB dispatched its ALPHA Team, the top Russian hostage rescue force, to the crisis site, the team arriving at the airport at about 1300 local. An ALPHA Entry Team began closing on the bus location as evening approached by crawling through tall grass near the bus to retain surprise and get within striking range. A Bus Takedown was finally ordered and initiated at about 2000 local using two diversionary devices outside the bus.
The explosions of the diversionary devices drew the attention of the hijacker, who came down the front steps on the right-front side of the bus and looked out to see what was happening. At that time he held a grenade in one hand and his weapon in the other. ALPHA Team snipers immediately shot the hijacker four times, at least one of the shots being a nerve shot to the head, hoping for immediate incapacitation by severely damaging the cranial vault. The diversionary devices also accomplished a second important goal: they drew the hijacker into a position that allowed the snipers a clean shot. If forced to shoot through the bus glass, the chances of a less accurate hit were increased considerably, and the concealment of the curtains would likely have foiled the snipers' aim and, thus, their shots.
When hit by the snipers, the hijacker's gun fired as he fell and dropped his grenade. He fell on top of the grenade, which then detonated and nearly severed one of his legs.
The sniper-initiated action leveraged the striking distance for the Entry Team. When the snipers fired, the Entry Team rose from concealment and rushed the bus. Believing there might likely be a second hijacker still inside the bus, the rescue force struck as quickly as possible. Windows were broken on at least the right side of the bus, and other windows manually opened to help at least some of the passengers escape. Understanding that making entry during a Bus Takedown is often too slow to ensure successful hostage rescue, the Entry Team initially dominated all areas of the bus interior through open and broken windows, while they were still outside the bus. This is a common, effective tactic employed by experienced hostage rescue teams for Bus Takedowns. Broken glass injured a number of passengers, but it is unclear if the glass injuries were due to sniper fire or from Entry Team actions.
The hijacker was killed instantly - a precision application of violence in the amount necessary to immediately produce the desired result - and the remaining 28 passengers rescued. Bomb technicians defused the explosive device on the hijacker's body.
The Russian ALPHA Team, experienced through a number of previous hostage rescue operations, once again proved effective during a crisis. By sticking to the basics and preserving surprise, they were able to close the distance to the target and control a coordinated sniper-initiated takedown when compromise took place. Surprise, speed, and aggressive action with the precision application of violence once again ensured a successful hostage rescue
* NOTE The author is a 21-year military special operations veteran, where he served as an Army Ranger in the 1st Ranger Battalion and as a Navy SEAL officer in five different SEAL Teams. He is also a former Miami-Dade police officer and served as member of their Special Response Team (SRT). He is currently employed by AMTI, a corporation that provides a wide range of technical and support activities to government agencies and business. Among other things, he teaches and writes about tactical operations. For information about their services, visit AMTI's website, or contact Mr. Ken Viera, AMTI Director of Operations (757)-431-8597.
** NOTE There is a slight discrepancy with the age of the hijacker, and the article does not make it quite clear on whether this was a mistake on the Takedown Team's side (or whether it was just a typo in the article.) Unfortunately the email address we have for Mr. Bosiljevac seems to be invalid, but contact will be attempted through the AMTI website as well.