June 26, 2003 -- — At least there are 750 tons of explosives that Greek authorities won't have to worry about as they get set to protect what some fear could be the juiciest terror target of 2004: the Summer Olympics in Athens.
Greek special forces captured the explosives — enough to level several towns — along with 140,000 detonators this week when they boarded the freighter Baltic Sky, a rusty vessel that had been plying the Mediterranean for six weeks.
While officials are relieved the ship's contents can't be put to ill use, the seizure is focusing attention on the daunting security challenges Greece faces as it prepares to host one of the world's premiere international competitions, and officials are scrambling to make their capital city safe.
Athens is seeing "the greatest security operation since Alexander the Great marched through Persia," said Neil Fergus, a former Australian intelligence agent whose consulting firm Intelligent Risks is working on the upcoming games.
The question remains though: Will it be enough?
A Changed World
Kevin Wamsley, the director of the International Center for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario, told ABCNEWS that security officials for the upcoming Olympics face a revolutionary new situation.
With the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and then the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, "it would be naïve to say things haven't changed," he said.
Also, the time and location present particular challenges. The 2002 Winter Olympics took place without incident just months after the Sept. 11 attacks, but they took place in the relatively isolated confines of Salt Lake City, Utah. Athens is closer to the volatile Middle East, at a veritable crossroads of the world.
Attendance at the Winter Games is also traditionally one-third what it is at the Summer Games. There will be "more press, and more important, more television coverage. It will be more highly visible," Wamsley said.
An event of such size may be just too good for terrorists to ignore.
"We can look right back to 1972 for that. The Black September group did that precisely for summer coverage," said Wamsley, referring to the first major terrorist attack on the Olympics in the Munich summer games.
The only other major Olympic terrorist attack happened 24 years later at the summer games in Atlanta.
The layout and topography of Athens also pose enormous challenges to organizers, said Wayne Lee, a military strategy and terrorism expert who has worked in Greece.
The city "has unwieldy traffic patterns that do not lend themselves to easy movement; there's not a lot of open space," he said.
Lee, who teaches at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky, added: "Athens was considered a dangerous airport by the State Department for some time."
Henri Barkey, a former policy planner for the State Department, said there had been some very significant security improvements in Athens. However, Barkey said "it doesn't look like everything is being finished on time," — and that itself could be a security concern.
"You finish in a rushed manner, you do something in haste at the last minute, you won't be as careful," he said. It could be something as simple as forgetting to put in a single metal detector.
Fergus said "the lead time is narrow." The major security firms working on Athens face an "absolutely critical" situation.
Gaps in the Fence
It will also be difficult to anticipate the method of attack terrorists may use. If there's anything close to a maxim about security, it's that terrorists — especially al Qaeda — strike in unexpected ways.
The 1972 Olympics saw a hostage-taking, but the 1996 Games saw a satchel bomb.
In 1998, al Qaeda struck embassies with a truck bomb. In 2000, they struck a destroyer with a suicide boat attack.
In 1993, terrorists first tried to destroy the World Trade Center with a truck bomb. Then the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks came by airplane.
Security expert Martin Roenigk said officials in Athens could be expected to establish a tight perimeter — on the ground, in the sea, and in the air, aimed at thwarting any potential assault.
When Greek security forces tested their readiness at a three-day European Union summit at the exclusive resort of Porto Carras in northern Greece last week, authorities deployed anti-aircraft missiles, military helicopters, patrol boats, and thousands of guards.
However, one thing that hasn't had much of a try is bioterrorism, said Roenigk, whose company Compudyne has helped secure a number of American embassies. "That's the kind of thing one can get in through sensors," he said.
On the other hand, the unforeseen circumstance might not be the manner of attack, but the identity of the attackers. Domestic terrorists should not be underestimated, said Barkey, who teaches international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
"They can do things that would be much harder for an outsider to do" — like take advantage of any lackadaisical security, with a "Hey, you know me, just let me in" approach, he said.
Another threat might come from anti-globalization protesters, Wamsley said. "There's a good symbolic target for anyone opposed to globalization."
But Fergus, who also worked on the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, said anti-globalists arrived to protest there, but they lacked a focal point and quickly lost their momentum.
Security Grows Exponentially
Despite the challenges, Greece appears to be "focused on meeting the expectations of the world community," Lee said. Olympic officials tout that Greece has:
Designated more than 45,000 security personnel. Sydney had 15,000 and Atlanta 9,000.
Plans to spend about $600 million in security infrastructure — compared to $310 million for Salt Lake City, $210 million for Sydney and $300 million for Atlanta.
Created the Olympic Security Division, which brings together intelligence and helps coordinate security forces — much like the Department of Homeland Security.
Organized the Olympic Advisory Group, a seven-nation task force composed of Australia, France, Germany, Israel, Spain, Britain and the United States — countries that have experience with Olympic Games or other large athletic events.
Staged extensive training exercises. In November, security forces simulated the hijacking of a cruise ship and airplane with help from experts from Scotland Yard.
But the action that has proven to be most assuring to the international community almost happened by chance. Last summer, Greece made their first-ever arrest of an operative of the November 17 terror group, who had injured himself making a bomb.
November 17 was once called one of the most elusive terror organizations in the world, having allegedly committed 23 killings and more than 100 bombings since 1975. But since that first arrest, the Greeks have nearly "eradicated" the group, said Fergus.
The State Department's 2002 "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report also gave Greece a rare highlight for its victories against November 17.
There's no doubt that the upcoming Summer Olympics are laden with meaning for Greeks. Athens is the birthplace of the Olympics, and the Greeks were disappointed when they did not get to be the site of the 1996 Centennial Games.
"My suspicion is they're going all out," Lee said. "They are deeply, heavily, emotionally invested in the Olympics. It's their baby."