2014 Sochi Olympics: Russia in Terrorists' Crosshairs

Putin's vow of safe games may not be enough as Islamist leader promises attacks.

December 29, 2013, 9:55 PM

Dec. 30, 2013 — -- The Olympic Games belong to the world. Hosting them is a point of genuine national pride. This February, everyone will be watching the Winter Games, which Russia is hosting -- and that includes "the bad guys."

The past two days saw the latest in a series of deadly terror attacks in Russia by suicide bombers -- following an attack in the same city of Volgograd just two months ago -- which have undoubtedly been intended to spark jitters of Olympic proportions, possibly by a deadly Islamist group promising to disrupt an event being watched by the eyes of the world, though no group has claimed responsibility for the recent attacks.

Major international sporting events have always served as lightning rods for terrorists, of course, with the Boston Marathon bombings being the most recent and tragic example. Just think back to the 1972 Munich Olympics and the impact of Palestinian extremist group Black September's attack on Israel's athletes -- magnified because the kidnappings and murders took place with the whole world watching the gruesome spectacle unfold.

The 2014 Games in Sochi in southern Russia present a symbolic target in a region with a long history of bloody violence. Russian authorities have long battled violent forces in the nearby North Caucasus. The Russian government fought two wars against Chechen separatists in the mid-1990's and early 2000's, radicalizing a generation of Muslim youths in the process.

Mainly populated by Muslims but also by over 100 ethnic groups, the North Caucasus has been immersed in endless conflict in the form of an ongoing violent Islamist insurgency, making it one of the most dangerous places on Earth. Between July and October of last year, 133 people were reportedly killed, including 32 police officers, in the conflict between militants and government forces there, mostly in Dagestan.

On September 16, a suicide bomber killed three police officers and wounded four others in Chechnya and later that day, a suicide bomber killed another police officer and wounded another individual in Ingushetia. Also on that same day, police detained a man wearing a suicide bomb after he entered a police station. A week later, another suicide bomber exploded a car outside a Dagestan police station, killing two more police officers and injuring several more including civilians. And then there was the October suicide bombing of a bus in the Russian city of Volgograd.

Is this the beginning of a larger terrorist campaign leading up to Sochi? There should be little doubt it is.

With Sochi located so close to the Chechen capital of Grozny, a hotbed of extremism, there is little geographical insulation to bring us comfort. The leader of the so-called "Caucasus Emirate," Chechen terrorist Doku Umarov -- known as "the Russian Bin Laden" -- made his intentions clear in a video statement in June in which he called on his followers to "use maximum force" to put a stop to the Games.

The situation is potentially toxic and explosive and the threat should be taken seriously, as it undoubtedly is, by Russian authorities.

In May of this year, Russian authorities claimed to have foiled a plot by Umarov to attack the Winter Games. Federal Security Service (FSB) agents declared that they had detained three suspected militants and seized a weapons cache in Abkhazia, the independent Georgian republic just across the border from Sochi. Investigators said the extremists had been planning to move the weapons, which included surface-to-air missiles and grenades, to Sochi to carry out attacks during the Olympics, according to local reports.

Russian security officials have boasted to U.S. delegations that they have rolled up terrorist cells and seized more pre-positioned terrorist weapons caches discovered even closer to the Olympic venue than nearby Georgia.

A Violent History … and Future?

In the 1990s, several top-level al Qaeda operatives entered the North Caucasus, including Saudi-born emissaries, and also longtime Osama Bin Laden deputy and current leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. (Zawahiri was arrested by the Russians in 1997 and released after six months in jail.) These jihadis viewed the lands as infidel-occupied and thus joined the struggle for independence, steering the conflict into radicalism. Under Umarov's leadership, what was once a nationalist movement has morphed into a jihadi cause. Though he has managed to co-opt and incorporate a local movement into the service of broader jihadi objectives, local buy-in to the global jihad and its larger "brand" is incomplete. Nevertheless, the danger remains acute, as the group has already demonstrated its capability repeatedly.

Chechen rebels and separatists have been behind a series of gruesome incidents historically. Examples include multiple hostage-takings in hospitals in 1995 and 1996, multiple Moscow Metro and train bombings in 2003 and 2010, hostage-taking in a Moscow theater in 2002, hostage-taking at a school in Beslan in 2004 that resulted in the deaths of 380 people including 186 children, and bombing Moscow's Domodedovo airport in 2011.

The October 2013 Volgograd bus bombing was reportedly perpetrated by a suicide bomber from Dagestan. The bomber was the wife of an ethnic Russian, Dmitri Sokolov, who joined jihadis in Dagestan and became an adept bomb-maker, according to a source in the Dagestani security services cited by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. He was killed by Russian authorities in mid-November.

Over the past 13 years, some 49 female suicide bombers -- dubbed "black widows"-- have carried out attacks in Russia, according to credible news reports. The October attack clearly showed that the militants who operate in Dagestan are capable of staging attacks far outside their home turf, which U.S. counter-terrorism officials say is a troubling signal of Umarov's rising confidence.

Having recently "lifted" an 18-month ban on killing innocent civilians, Umarov has vowed via fiery speeches -- broadcast via YouTube -- to bring death and destruction to the Sochi Olympics. Umarov is using the Games to bring international attention to his separatist cause of an independent Islamic state, carved out within the borders of Russia.

In the case of the Boston Marathon bombers, brothers Dzhozkhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were natives of Dagestan and brought worldwide attention to the Chechen issue and violent extremism within Russia when authorities say they exploded two IEDs at the race last April. While Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police days after the bombing, Dzhokhar was apprehended and has pleaded not guilty. Umarov is attempting to gain more traction by building on renewed international interest in the conflict.

'Iron Fist' Security Could Protect Games, But What About Hotels and Restaurants?

Unsurprisingly, the Russian government has promised tight security for the Games, and with President Vladimir Putin touting the Olympics as "a personal project," more than $50 billion is being invested to show the world what Russia can do as it hosts 2,500 athletes from dozens of countries.

Against this background and the expected deployment of ample military and quasi-military forces to secure the Games themselves, the greater vulnerability would seem to lie on the Olympic periphery, in the form of softer targets: the hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs where tourists will go — especially given the relatively isolated location of the Games. This is what happened in Uganda in 2010 when al Qaeda's affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabab, attacked two World Cup viewing parties in Kampala, killing 74 sports fans including one American.

Another way terrorists could duck the strong security presence is through acts of sabotage undertaken prior to the Games but timed to take effect when they are underway. For example, during construction of the various venues, it may be possible to implant an improvised explosive device with a timer attached. This possibility is not as far-fetched as it sounds. It has actually happened before: In 2004, a bomb implanted in the Dinamo football stadium within a concrete pillar, inserted by Chechen insurgents during prior repairs, killed the first President of the Chechen Republic, Akhmad Kadyrov, as well as more than a dozen others. Kadyrov's son, Ramzan Kadyrov, is now President of the Chechen Republic, and is known to take a hard line against militants within his borders.

In our view, this type of insider threat is possible but not probable. However, many measures are being taken by Russian authorities in order to secure the Games, such as neighborhood sweeps and roundups. If executed in a too heavy-handed way, however, damage may be done to the battle for hearts and minds in the region.

Layered atop this bloody history and of even greater concern today is the foreign fighter phenomenon which could further bolster Umarov's wherewithal to act. Foreign fighters have long been drawn to fight alongside Chechen "mujahideen brothers" in North Caucasus, and now Chechens motivated by a sense of religious duty have added Syria to their list of jihadi destinations beyond Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and the Sahel and Maghreb regions of Africa.

Russian officials believe there could be as many as 1,500 Russian Islamist militants — including 400 to 500 Chechens, 600 Dagestanis, and 200 Tatars and Bashkirs — fighting in Syria on the side of the opposition to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. They join up to an estimated 11,000 foreign fighters from 74 nations around the world. These fighters have weapons, the latest training and a desire to use it, and are battle-hardened in urban warfare should they turn their attention to Russian pride over hosting the Winter Olympic Games.

Consider the foregoing against what the Russian State and President Putin himself have at stake with the Games: national and personal credibility and prestige, and the economic future of Southern Russia. The stage is further set if we keep in mind that Putin has stood shoulder to shoulder with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad throughout the conflict in Syria, thus aligning Russia against the rebel forces in Syria, which include jihadists (foreign fighters) from across the globe.

US Officials Want Better Russian Cooperation on Olympic Counter-Terror

Looking ahead, it would seem a win-win for Russia to work together with the international community to keep the Games and the periphery safe, both for Russians and for athletes and visitors the world over. We have been told by U.S. officials that cooperation could be better. Umarov has set down the gauntlet, and millions have been spent on counter-terrorism efforts in Russia and the United States alone. Following the Boston Marathon incident, both countries would do well to redouble their efforts on information sharing.

Will Russia overplay its hand? Or, will it bring partners into the fold?

Certainly the 2012 London Summer Games set a high standard, if not a gold standard, for protection and international security cooperation. The question is whether this is a model that the Russians will emulate in preparation for, and at, the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. The question is far from academic as it bears significant implications for public safety and security, not only for Russians, but for all international participants in and visitors to the Games. There is little cause for optimism however, as anti-Americanism is promoted from above in Russia; and as Russian counter-terrorism operations with the United States and its allies have fallen victim to the counterproductive climate that has prevailed in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Accordingly, the United States should go into the Games with eyes wide open, in order to best protect American athletes, their families and American journalists and tourists. As yet, it is unclear how many international visitors there will be to Sochi. It is worth noting, though, that there are an estimated 5.5 million Russian-speaking people in the United States, with New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Detroit leading this demographic concentration. Should any decide to travel to the games, will they be at risk and are there any sympathetic Chechen Americans in the bunch?

Putin's position is not to be envied. But he would be ill-advised to make a challenging situation even tougher, without cause.

Let's make the 2014 Winter Games a safe event for all. Over to you, President Putin.

Frank Cilluffo is the Director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. Michael Downing is the Deputy Chief and Commanding Officer for the Los Angeles Police Department's Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau. HSPI's Sharon Cardash contributed to this article.