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. 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, appear to have become the Chechen separatists’ weapon of choice. An ethnically Russian widow of a Caucasus separatist fighters is suspected 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 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 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.