Sept. 1, 2004. In Beslan, Russia, it was opening day at School No. 1.
As parents, teachers and students gathered to celebrate the new school year, a team of heavily armed Chechen terrorists stormed the building. They held more than 1,000 hostages in the gym.
Local police and Russian troops soon ringed the building. After a tense three-day standoff, explosions went off, and Russian security went in. More than 300 hostages died -- most of them children.
We've heard little from the Northern Caucasus since the butchery at Beslan. But this is not a case of "no news is good news." The war-ravaged region has become a hotbed of Islamist insurgents. It remains mostly lawless and highly volatile.
Moscow has tried to quash the mushrooming terrorist threat there. But its muscular use of military force seems to be making things worse, not better. Russia's heavy-handed approach has sparked human rights abuses and corruption, but few credible results. Last year, Human Rights Watch condemned the "abductions, enforced disappearances, torture, and extra-judicial killings by members of the local law enforcement and security agencies," all conducted with "nearly absolute impunity."
Moscow's way of dealing with the failures and scandals of its "counter-insurgency" strategy has been to try to hide the truth. That has proved most unhealthy for many independent journalists. Just last week, Elena Milashina, a correspondent for Novaya Gazeta who had been investigating human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, was savagely beaten on a Moscow street.
Heritage Foundation analyst Ariel Cohen predicts the situation will get worse. "The Muslim population in the North Caucasus is growing, and the regional economy is becoming less able to support the growing population," he says.
Al Qaeda has long wanted to ally itself with the Chechen separatists. In 2010, the United States identified Chechen warlord Dokka Umarov as a leader in the al Qaeda-linked Caucasus Emirate. American counterterrorism officials worry that Umarov's rise may be the first move in an al Qaeda strategy to turn the Chechen independence movement into a wing of its "global insurgency" army.
An al Qaeda base in the Caucuses would not remain solely Russia's problem. It could be the springboard for attacks throughout Western Europe, where targets would include U.S. military installations as well as allies.
President Obama's vaunted Russian "reset" won't be of much help in addressing killers pouring into the Caucuses. The truth is the reset has produced nothing of real value to the U.S. at all. Certainly we've received no love from Russia. Nor do we seem to have any more influence over Moscow's policies, foreign or domestic.
As far as the Caucuses is concerned, Moscow seems determined to persist in addressing the threat ineptly, pursuing policies that inflame opposition rather than redress abuses and grievances.
That said, the U.S. need not stand idly by, waiting for bad things to happen. For starters, we can help the bordering nations of Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan beef up their counterterrorism and border security capabilities. They have no interest in seeing militant Islamists take over the neighborhood.
And the White House could put the squeeze on countries like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to stop their nationals from funneling cash to Islamist insurgents in the North Caucasus. Most important, the U.S. and its European allies need to establish an effective "early warning" system, sharing intelligence quickly and effectively, to stop threats coming out of the region.
After all, another Beslan could happen anywhere.
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.