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Can Putin Keep Sochi Safe?

The last time the Olympic Games were confronted with a serious, capable, and active terrorist movement was at the 1992 Barcelona Games, when the Euskadi ta Akatasuna (ETA) threatened to stage attacks to highlight its demands for an independent Basque homeland. Currently, the Russian Olympic sponsors of the Sochi Games, which open on February 7th, are confronted by what is quite possibly an even greater threat.

Central Asian Muslim separatists, mostly Chechens, have been fighting since 1992 to break away from the Russian Federation and obtain independence for several neighboring Muslim majority states. There have been two “wars” against Chechnya involving Russian troops, the second of which restored Moscow’s control of the region by 2009, but at a price [1]. 15,000 Russian soldiers died as well as 300,000 Chechens. The capital city Grozny was subsequently described as the “most destroyed city on the planet.” Russia is loath to give up the region because major oil and gas pipelines transit through it, but the pacification of Chechnya has become increasingly bloody as the insurgency increasingly identifies with al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups, giving the conflict an international dimension. Chechen fighters are reported to be increasingly turning up in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria.

The U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for the Sochi Games based on concerns that it is close to the regions in central Asia that have been subject to terrorist attacks, and thus might experience spillover from that violence. Indeed, Chechens have been repeatedly able to challenge Russian security forces even in Moscow. Notable Chechen attacks over the past 15 years have included the 2002 siege of the Dubrovska Theater in Moscow that killed more than 150, and the 2004 capture of a Beslan school in neighboring North Ossetia that resulted in the deaths of more than 300, mostly children. In the same year, Chechen separatists downed two civilian airliners using bombs. A March 2010 attack by two women suicide bombers in a Moscow metro station killed 39.

Suicide bombings, often using women [2], appear to have become the Chechen separatists’ weapon of choice. An ethnically Russian widow of a Caucasus separatist fighters is suspected [3] of trying to reach Sochi to carry out such an attack. So-called white widow Ruzana Ibragimova is believed to have arrived in Sochi on January 10th or 11th and has been seen in the city. Hotels report that “wanted” posters have been circulated depicting her and three other Central Asian women suspected of preparing to engage in terrorist attacks.

Most recently, Chechen rebel leader and Russia’s most wanted terrorist Doku Umarov has ordered [4] his followers to sabotage the Sochi Games by whatever means necessary, including attacks on civilian targets. Umarov’s group has lately taken credit for two suicide bombings in Volgograd in early January that killed 34. As Volgograd is the hub on the main rail line from Moscow that allows one to proceed by train to Sochi, the message being sent by the attack is clear. And there is no reason to doubt that Umarov or another Chechen insurgent group was responsible. Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to send 40,000 police and military personnel to Sochi to guarantee security for the expected hundreds of thousands of visitors and athletes, some 15,000 of whom will likely be from the United States.

I was the CIA’s principal officer in Barcelona for the 1992 Games and also worked with the Chinese National Police in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Based on those experiences, I would note that the addition of 40,000 soldiers and cops at this point, just two weeks before the Opening Ceremonies, is more cosmetic than effective. They will not know what to do and will be, in a sense, little more than additional targets. Even the estimated total of as many as 100,000 security personnel being in place do not guarantee good results. Olympic security planning, alas, should begin soon after the bid is accepted by the International Olympic Committee and there is no quick fix for it. I spent three years in place in Barcelona doing little beyond working with my Spanish counterparts to plan and eventually implement security arrangements that included physical barriers, intelligence gathering, crowd control, and training of personnel. The Spanish devoted considerable resources to the effort and one of the first permanent facilities set up to support the Games was a fusion center where intelligence could be shared and decisions could be made in real time in response to any perceived threat.

The security for a large scale public event like the Olympic Games is particularly difficult as there must be relatively free access to events combined with protection for visitors and participants. It generally is structured in concentric rings, incrementally increasing the level of scrutiny as one proceeds. The outermost level is static and consists of heavy police and military presence at the fringes of the target area to serve as a deterrent and tripwire for any terrorist attempt. Sochi benefits from being geographically isolated, but it now appears that Putin will also extend the security perimeter outward to include checks on all roads and rail lines entering the region from the mountains behind the city and along the shoreline of the Black Sea. The approaches from the water and the port will be under the control of the Russian Navy and Coast Guard.

Sochi International Airport is modern and has excellent security, with connecting flights from most major Russian cities. One can expect anyone transiting any Russian airport on the way to Sochi to encounter intense scrutiny, so it might be advisable to fly with Austrian Airlines or Turkish Airlines, both of which connect to Sochi. The Russians will also require visas [5] from nearly all foreign visitors, which will be used as a security tool. The screening of arrivals from abroad will be intense, requiring evidence of jobs, income, and other relevant documents.

Once inside the perimeter, there will be two basic levels of security. Sports venues and the Olympic village will have physical and procedural measures in place, including fences, CCTV, and metal detectors as well as security badges linked to access controls. Other public spaces such as hotels, city parks, and squares will have highly visible security in place, but it will be less proactive.  One should assume that anyone who appears to be central Asian in origin and any woman wearing Islamic garb will likely be stopped repeatedly, as the Russians are unlikely to be concerned with issues like “profiling.”

The United States government has offered to work with the Russians on Sochi but has been politely turned down because the Russians believe, correctly, that they understand their own security environment very well. One can assume that they have been doing NSA-type intensive monitoring of electronic transmissions and phone calls for at least the past year. And the Federal Security Service (FSB) no doubt has a host of informants on tap to provide information on groups operating in or potentially threatening Sochi.  In spite of the Russian desire to go it alone, it is nevertheless my understanding that there will be both Russian-speaking CIA and FBI personnel in the Sochi fusion center to provide assistance upon request, together with representatives from a number of European countries.  The U.S. Navy will also have ships in international waters in the Black Sea to provide support, or even an evacuation, if called upon.

The principal challenge for Sochi is the relatively new threat posed by the suicide bomber. Since the date for the Games has been known for years, it should be assumed that parts for bombs might have been smuggled into Sochi weeks or even months ago, so the threat might materialize both inside and outside the security perimeter. Suicide bombers who are able to approach a security checkpoint pose a unique threat in that they can create a major incident just by virtue of detonating their explosives even if they only kill themselves, accomplishing their goal of creating uncertainty over the Russian handling of the security of the Games. The Russian response will be to create clear zones with built-in isolation cages around each access point, though that will be difficult to manage in practice with the large crowds that will be present.

Visitors to Sochi should be particularly concerned about two things: public transportation and crowds. The two recent attacks in Volgograd took place on public transportation, one on a trolley and the other in the train station. An attack on public transportation guarantees high levels of casualties; note the attacks in London in 2005 and in Madrid in 2004. Crowds are another favorite target, both because the confusion created by a large group of people milling around makes it hard for security to monitor for any threats, and because the attack itself creates more deaths and injuries.

Do I think there will be a major security incident at the Sochi Games, and would I go to see them if I had the opportunity? The answer to both questions would be “yes.” The odds in favor of a major incident are uncomfortably high. But if one is careful and observant, avoiding crowds, public spaces, and public transportation, the personal risk can be minimized. And I would like to be able to see an Olympics without having to work. In Barcelona, I spent the Games either in a fortified bunker underneath the U.S. Consulate General or at the Spanish security fusion center, missing nearly everything. Ultimately, fear of terrorism should impel us to behave cautiously, but it is a manageable risk and should not become a reason to avoid doing the things one wants to do.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "Can Putin Keep Sochi Safe?"

#1 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On January 28, 2014 @ 12:44 am

What gets lost in some narratives, but not this one, is that THESE ARE THE OLYMPICS! For those of us who revere our western heritage, they are part of our patrimony. Beyond this, the whole civilized world recognizes the high-minded significance of these games. Free men and women should travel to the Olympics wherever they are held, showing solidarity with the spirit of athletic excellence pursued in peace and mutual respect.

Let the barbarians plot.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 28, 2014 @ 3:28 am

It’s too bad that cooperation between American and Russian expertise has been undermined by a resurgence of anti-Russian enmity that our own propaganda had us convinced was anti-Soviet and genuinely ideological. In addition, it’s credible for the Russians to believe that the voracious American penchant for surveillance would mean that cooperation would be a subterfuge of only secondary interest, with the real interest being intelligence penetration efforts. Overreach is counterproductive, distracting and ultimately wasteful as well.

#3 Comment By Hunsdon On January 28, 2014 @ 7:36 am

My only real quibble would be the reference to Chechens (and Chechnya!) as “Central Asian,” as, by inference, that would also make Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan Central Asian. I’d have thrown them into the Caucasian category, but a minor quibble.

Mr. Giraldi’s articles are always interesting and thought provoking, and it is always a pleasure to encounter a fresh one.

#4 Comment By John Richards On January 28, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

“But if one is careful and observant, avoiding crowds, public spaces, and public transportation, the personal risk can be minimized.” How, exactly, is one supposed to avoid any of these things at the Olympics?

#5 Comment By carl lundgren On January 28, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

Be glad to, Tom. Send me the airline tickets, hotel reservations, and event tickets (two for the hockey finals) ASAP.

One thing that crossed my mind while reading the recent article on the Sochi construction clusterf*&k was that mobsters are akin to the separatists. The cost overruns have been astounding. We know a lot went to bribes. How much went to “nice Olympics you have here. Be a shame if something happened to it”. It may be more peaceful than we could hope.

#6 Comment By Hooly On January 28, 2014 @ 2:12 pm

If the Chinese can pull off a safe Olympics, then I’m sure the Russians can as well.

#7 Comment By David J. White On January 28, 2014 @ 5:01 pm

What gets lost in some narratives, but not this one, is that THESE ARE THE OLYMPICS! For those of us who revere our western heritage, they are part of our patrimony.

Bah. I am a Classicist, and I dispute that the modern Olympics are part of our “patrimony.” The are no more part of our patrimony than re-establishing the Oracle at Delphi or the Eleusinian Mysteries would be. They were created in the 19th century by people who had a completely idealized, romanticized, and wrongheaded notion of what the ancient Greeks were like. They have become a cesspit of corruption and jingoism. The sooner they pass away, the better.

#8 Comment By DeepSouthPopulist On January 28, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

The reason nothing will happen:

One should assume that anyone who appears to be central Asian in origin and any woman wearing Islamic garb will likely be stopped repeatedly, as the Russians are unlikely to be concerned with issues like “profiling.”

They won’t let themselves be paralyzed by PC anxiety.

#9 Comment By Rachel On January 28, 2014 @ 6:30 pm

If one is careful and observant, avoiding crowds, public spaces, and public transportation, the personal risk can be minimized.

How on Earth do you avoid crowds, public spaces, and public transportation at the Olympics?

#10 Comment By Philip Giraldi On January 28, 2014 @ 7:50 pm

John – The State Department says pretty much the same thing in its travel warning for Sochi – suicide bombers will want to inflict maximum casualties so they will go for buses, trains, etc and large groups of people. If you want to be safe, avoid buses & trains and use taxis or walk. If you see a crowd gathering go the other way. When entering a venue, wait until there is no or a short line to enter so you are constantly moving. By public spaces I mean avoid areas in squares or parks where people are congregating in groups. It might sound silly but you will dramatically enhance your ability to avoid becoming part of a terrorist incident.

#11 Comment By RadicalCenter2016 On January 28, 2014 @ 8:14 pm

Philip: Really enjoy your writing and rely on your expertise. But I don’t see how someone attending the Olympics can possibly avoid large crowds!

#12 Comment By Beijing Expat On January 28, 2014 @ 10:15 pm

> If the Chinese can pull off a safe Olympics, then I’m sure the Russians can as well.

I was living in Beijing already in 2008. And the Olympics were a paranoid, lifeless affair to many locals. I mean: On top of the usual annoyances. “No fun” sums it up best and there was not much of a “welcome” spirit going around. I skipped the whole thing.

> If you want to be safe, avoid buses & trains and use taxis or walk. If you see a crowd gathering go the other way. When entering a venue, wait until there is no or a short line to enter so you are constantly moving. By public spaces I mean avoid areas in squares or parks where people are congregating in groups.

Yep. Sounds like a lot of fun again. Add in graft & greed and my question is:

Why would I bother please?

#13 Comment By VikingLS On January 28, 2014 @ 11:47 pm

Philip any comment on the threat Prince Bandahar is said to have made to Putin re the Olympics?

#14 Comment By Daniel Spaulding On January 29, 2014 @ 12:09 am

Are the Chechen terrorists (and their Saudi sponsors) willing to kill large numbers of non-Russians (North Americans, Europeans, and Asians)? That is the question to be asked.

#15 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On January 29, 2014 @ 12:24 am

Sure Carl, I’m expecting the prize patrol sometime within the next 24 hours. When I get mine, your check will be in the mail instantly, if not sooner.

Or we can watch it on TV!

#16 Comment By Richard Parker On January 29, 2014 @ 5:24 am

The answer is too simple: Let the Chechen’s go. They are not Russians by language, religion, ethnic background, or culture. An independent Chechen state would be a nasty little place, but they would not bombing Moscow or Boston.

#17 Comment By Philip Giraldi On January 29, 2014 @ 7:30 am

Viking – The reported Bandar offer to “control” the Chechens in exchange for Russia withdrawing support from Syria is not credible. No nation would claim to control any recognized terrorist group. I do believe that Bandar offered the Russians intelligence and other assistance re the threat from the Chechens. The Russians said “no” in any event and I doubt if the Saudis are in any position to instigate any attack using the Chechens.

Daniel-They would want to kill foreigners as a first priority as that would generate the most condemnation of the Russian government.

#18 Comment By Ed K On January 29, 2014 @ 7:40 am

Mr. Giraldi Good article but you did not mention that Prince Bender, the true leader of Al-Qaida, threatened Putin in their last meeting that he will send his Chechens minion to do the Job unless Russia stop its support to the Syrian Government against his terrorist there. The Russian government needs to put the Saudi government on notice, if anything happened in Sochi they will be held responsible.

#19 Comment By Andrew On January 29, 2014 @ 4:00 pm

@Philip Giraldi

Saudis are in any position to instigate any attack using the Chechens.

Saudis do finance “wahabization” of Russia’s Muslim minorities. It is documented fact. Hattab was definitely a big shot in Chechnya until he was sent to 72 virgins. The problem here is more in the loss of “agility” by FSB. Today they are “fat cats” of Putin and many themselves are a security risk.

#20 Comment By Richard Parker On January 30, 2014 @ 2:12 am

“The Russian government needs to put the Saudi government on notice, if anything happened in Sochi they will be held responsible.”

1914…2014

#21 Comment By Rik Without Relent On January 31, 2014 @ 12:52 pm

There shall be no problems, as Putin will ride, barechested, on what probably will be an actual horse, in Sochi on Feb 6th.

#22 Comment By Mike On January 31, 2014 @ 2:31 pm

Philip,
Love your writings. Thanks for the insight into security subjects without usual propaganda coming from minions of the Security State. Keep up the good work. I would subscribe to the magazine just to get your writings alone.

#23 Comment By Phillip On January 31, 2014 @ 4:11 pm

The governments that hosted all the previous Olympic games were not so terribly corrupted as the Putin’s government in today’s Russia. His personal friends got the best pieces of the olympic pie. It is the absence of the rule of law, free press, independent mass media and civil rights that has made it possible. This is the major difference that one has to consider. Respectively, the foundation of the terrorist threat is quite different, too. It is not the muslim fundamentalism per se, which is just an ideological cover. It is the fight for the share in the criminal money, quite a huge one. As NBC asserted, about $30B of the total olympic budget of $50B were stolen and have now to be washed out.

#24 Comment By Ron Lewenberg On February 1, 2014 @ 3:12 am

Chechens are not Central Asian Muslims. Chechens are a native Kavkaz/Caucasian people, which is more than one can say for the Russian settlers on lands that belonged to the Adyghe/Circassian Muslims 160 years ago. Chechen terrorism will occur. But I’d be worried about the wolf that has not howled yet, Adyghe nationalists and Islamists furious that the games are literally being held on the mass graves of Circassians. The eyes of the world will be on Russia making terrorism very lucrative for captive peoples, in the prison of nations knows Russia.

#25 Comment By Duglarri On February 3, 2014 @ 10:56 am

I’m surprised there’s not more mention of the assassination technique that killed the first Russian-backed President of Chechnya in 2004. In that incident a bomb was actually built into the stadium years before, and was left in place to wait for an opportune moment. That moment came when the President attended a Soviet Day parade. He and most of his government sat down on the stands to watch the parade, and the bomb was triggered remotely.

As Phil says, it’s not the security now that matters; it’s what the security was like two or three years ago. Does anyone think the Sochi building sites were secure three years ago? How tough would it have been to bribe a couple of watchmen and drive a truck with a few barrels onto a building site in the middle of the night and cement them into a pillar?

Not only is the idea of a built-in bomb available to the terrorists- the same individuals who built the one that worked so well last time are still around.

#26 Comment By Rightster On February 3, 2014 @ 11:11 am

How come Obama couldn’t keep Boston safe during the Marathon?

#27 Comment By Joe On February 3, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

Too bad you didn’t do security at the Atlanta Olympics where a radical American religious zealot tried to kill me with a bomb.

#28 Comment By Gazza On February 10, 2014 @ 3:15 am

Phillip January 31, 2014 at 4:11 pm

“As NBC asserted, about $30B of the total olympic budget of $50B were stolen and have now to be washed out”

Pffft… something is true simply because NBC or Russia/Putins’ political enemies claim it to be so? Your blather about the “corruption, absence of the rule of law, free press, independent mass media and civil rights” marks you as just another life-long Russophobe, and your obvious prejudices led you to believe the worst anti-Russian tripe.