2014 Sochi Olympics: Russia in Terrorists' Crosshairs

PHOTO: In this photo made by a public camera and made available by the Associated Press Television News smoke pours out after an explosion at Volgograd railway station, in Volograd Russia on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013.
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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.

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