Former Deputy Commander Describes Work of Russia’s Alpha Counter-Terrorism Unit

Andrew McGregor

October 28, 2011

The former deputy commander and 15-year veteran of Russia’s elite Alfa counterterrorist unit, Sergey Goncharov, has shed some light on various controversial operations carried out by his former unit in a wide-ranging interview carried by a Russian magazine (Itogi, October 10). Goncharov is currently head of the Alfa Veteran Association which has engaged in anti-Yeltsin political activism in the past but is mainly concerned now with providing protection to Russian “VIPs.”

Alfa’s participation in incidents such as the January 1991 massacre of Lithuanian civilians in Vilnius has left some Alfa veterans open to prosecution (see, July 22). Nonetheless, Goncharov maintains that Alfa Group does not act as an enforcement team for politicians: “We have never been afraid to disagree with decisions imposed from above. And when some kind of TsK [Central Committee] member, who has never held anything other than a hunting rifle, orders us to resolve a problem in a particular way, he needs to be politely sent away. And they have been sent away.”

Goncharov defended the Alfa Group’s role in the 2002 Nord-Ost Theater crisis (in which 129 hostages were killed by poison gas released by Russian Special Forces) and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis (in which 334 hostages and 21 security men were killed in a bungled rescue operation): “Both operations are black marks on both the unit and on the history of Russian antiterrorist efforts. Nonetheless, in the first one, in my opinion, the tactic that was selected was the only possible solution to avoid an enormous loss of life. Of course, it is a great pity that hostages were killed and died from [gas] poisoning, but the use of the so-called “laughing gas” was just about the only solution available at that time… The use of the gas allowed us to enter the auditorium and with precise sniper fire neutralize the terrorists, without incurring huge losses [to Alfa forces]. But at Beslan actually there was no assault. There the guys saved the children, and did not kill the terrorists. They drew fire on themselves as they covered the students with their own bodies.”

In 2005, Goncharov made the surprising claim, against all available evidence, that the assassination of former Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Qatar was carried out by American Special Forces rather than Russian agents (Pravda, August 20, 2005; for the assassination see Terrorism Monitor, May 17, 2005).

However, Goncharov advocates the “targeted elimination of terrorist leaders,” suggesting that the Alfa group has an important role to play in such operations: “[Assassination] is one of the most effective methods of combating terrorism under contemporary conditions. Using medical terminology, the ‘Alfa’ group is a sharp scalpel, a direct action instrument, and the final argument when pills and enemas do not help.” Goncharov notes, however, that such operations can only have a limited effect: “If someone thinks that the elimination of a single leader will result in the destruction of an entire command, this is not correct. Terrorism is an enormous business, in which many countries are engaged. This business is passed on as a legacy, from one killed leader to another.”

Turning to the ongoing conflict in the North Caucasus, Goncharov maintains that the struggle there is financed by external sources: “Fighting in our North Caucasus has been going on so long not for an ideal, but only because combat operations are so lavishly financed. And by whom? One can only speculate. But I personally think this: no matter how hard we try to become friends with the Americans, we will never become friends with them. We can only be fellow travelers with them up until the time they use us for their own purposes. And then they will continue on their own way. And instability in the North Caucasus plays into their hands.”

This article was first published in the October 28, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor