CREDIT: AP Photo/Ignat Kozlov
As the 2014 Winter Olympics begin, American politicians and media outlets alike are beginning to voice concerns over the security of athletes assembling in Russia. So is the concern warranted? Does the threat live up to the hype? Here’s what you need to know about the security issues the Caucasus region faces and why that matters for Sochi:
1. Who’s behind the terror threats against Sochi and why do they want to attack the Games?
This year’s Winter Olympics are taking place nearby one of the most restive areas within the Russian Federation. The states of Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya both lie beyond the Caucasus mountain range from Krasnodar Krai, home to Sochi, and that is what has Russian officials the most concerned. All three states have majority Muslim populations that have struggled against Moscow’s rule for decades, with Chechnya in particular fighting several all-out wars launched to keep them within the Federation. Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power during the second of these wars, which saw him accused of using excessive force against civilians.
As of today, the main threat that the region faces insofar as terrorist organizations go is believed to be the Caucasus Emirate, a conglomeration of various rebel groups who seek to establish a new state composed of the Muslim areas currently within Russia, including part of Krasnodar Krai. Doku Umarov, the self-styled Emir of the group who has been referred to as the region’s Osama bin Laden, declared in a video last July that Moscow had taken his group’s previous declaration that civilians were to be spared from violence as weakness and claimed that the Russians had upped the number of attacks in the North Caucasus.
Umarov thus lifted the ban, calling on members of the insurgency to target the Olympics, which he said were being held “on the bones of many, many Muslims killed…and buried on our lands extending to the Black Sea.” Whether Umarov is alive today to see the execution of his threat, though, is up for debate. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow-backed president of Chechnya, announced that Kadryov had been killed, a pronouncement that has been made previously.
2. What terrorist attacks have taken place in Russia to warrant concern?
Most terrorist attacks in Russia have come in either ahead of or in response to military operations against Chechens and other Muslims within the region, but have resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives at the hands of both terrorists and the Russian authorities. More than 300 hostages were killed, including 186 children, in the Russian city Beslan when a Chechen group took an elementary school hostage in 2004. The Russian government itself killed 130 hostages while trying to free them from inside of a Moscow theater. Most recently, two suicide bombs ripped through the Russian city of Volgograd just prior to the New Year, resulting in the deaths of at least thirty people. Both bombs were linked, according to Russian investigators, through identical shrapnel.
In mid-January, a video of two young men appeared on a website devoted to the concept of jihad, in which the pair claimed credit for the Volgograd bombings. While they call themselves the “Subversive Group of Ansar al Sunnah,” that name does not appear in the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) database as being previously active. In the video, which only obliquely mentions the Sochi Olympics in a reference to “tourists,” the two claimed to be operating under the orders of Umarov and the Caucasus Emirate in setting the explosives and warned that more would be coming.
The delivery of such explosives, according to reports from Russian authorities, may come in the form of so-called “black widows,” the wives of deceased terrorists who have been recruited to carry out attacks of their own. Terrorism experts, meanwhile, have become increasingly concerned that any potential attack on the Sochi venue itself, but instead striking soft targets in other Russian cities.
3. Are the groups threatening the Games related to other global terrorist groups?
Evidence exists that the Caucasus Emirate’s fighters can be linked to groups currently fighting in Syria to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and institute their own view of Islam. And according to the United Nations, the group is determined to be associated with Al-Qaeda, at least for the purpose of determining international sanctions against the Emirate. Despite that, there has so far been no reporting indicating that any plots against Sochi are global, rather than regional, in nature. While reports on the day of the Opening Ceremonies indicate that a man attempted to hijack a plane towards Sochi after it lifted off from an airport in Ukraine, there has been no reporting yet about any ties that man might have to terrorist groups.
4. What is Russia doing to prepare for the Olympic Games?
Even before December’s twin bombings, Russia had already begun stepping up “security efforts” ahead of the Olympics. Some of these methods can be seen as heavy-handed, including preparing to monitor all communications in the Black Sea city. Moscow has also banned rallies and protests scheduled to coincide with the Olympics, and begun collecting DNA samples from Muslim women.
The DNA sampling began after another suicide bombing in Volgograd in October. “In response, security forces have blown up the homes of attackers’ relatives, sealed off mountain villages and rounded up young men suspected of having ties to armed fighters,” Radio Free Europe reported at the time.
“The existing forces present today in the region around the Olympics are prepared to react to any threats to safety and will not allow the carrying out of any hostile acts against participants or guests of the Olympic Games,” Alexey Lavrishev, the Russian official in charge of security for the games, guaranteed the week before the launch of the games.
That same week, Russia named the “Buinaksk Terrorist Group” as the group behind the bombing, arresting what it claimed were two of its members. Days later, Russian media reported that its security forces had killed the mastermind behind the Volgograd bombing during a shootout in Dagestan. While the name of the group they were affiliated with was not given, it was Buinaksk Terrorist Group
The New York Times in January detailed the full extent to which Russia is placing the resort town on lockdown. “In addition to deploying tens of thousands of police and military reinforcements to the Sochi area, the government has tightened control inside the city ahead of the opening of the Games on Feb. 7, imposing a ban on vehicles that are not registered in the region and requiring even Russians who visit to register with the police within three days, as foreigners must do,” the Times writes. No amount of liquids are allowed on flights into the city, and all Olympic spectators must bear ID cards that bear their photograph and biographical information.
5. What’s the United States’ role in protecting its athletes?
As of two days before the Olympics’ start, a majority of Americans believed that there would be a terrorist attack during the events, according to a CNN poll. In light of that, the U.S. was determined to not sit idly by as the delegation — numbering hundreds of athletes, trainers, officials, and other Americans — prepared to fly to Russia, particularly in the wake of the recent attacks. “The United States stands in solidarity with the Russian people against terrorism,” National Security Council spokesperson said in a statement following the Volgograd bombings, noting that the U.S. “offered our full support to the Russian government in security preparations” and would “welcome the opportunity for closer cooperation for the safety of the athletes, spectators, and other participants.”
That opportunity seemed to be in the works in the form of talks between Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and his Russian counterpart on providing technological aid to help protect spectators. “The Defense Department would be willing to provide equipment designed to detect and disrupt cellphone or radio signals used by militants to detonate improvised explosives from a distance,” the New York Times reports. But the equipment would need to be tested to ensure it can integrate properly with the Russian communications networks and systems already being put into place.
The bombings, however, did not significantly altered the U.S.’ security plan for its participants, according to Patrick Sandusky, a spokesperson for the U.S. Olympic Committee. “We treat them all equally,” Sandusky told Foreign Policy, referring to Olympics Games held around the world. “Terrorism happens everywhere, not just in Russia.” Those preparations already in place include contingency planning in case of emergency, according to a U.S. official speaking with CNN, which involves “up to two warships and several transport aircraft on standby” in the Black Sea to evacuate Americans if necessary.
On top of those precautions, the U.S. is making sure to ensure that its citizens are wary of any possible threat that may exist. In the run up to the Games beginning, the government issued several warnings to those traveling to Sochi to take part in the festivities, either as athletes or spectators. Olympians were reportedly warned not to wear their Team U.S.A. gear outside of the official venues in Sochi, so as to not draw attention to themselves. The Department of Homeland Security also warned of the potential for explosives hidden in tubes of toothpaste ahead of Sochi, thought they insisted the warning was not linked to a specific threat.
This post has been updated on Feb. 7, 2013 ahead of the start of the Winter Olympics