As I write, hundreds of thousands of spectators and participants will be converging by air, sea, rail and road towards the Black Sea town of Sochi, sitting in the shadow of the now snow-laden Caucasian Mountains and the winter sports resort of Krasnaya Polyana.
They are joined there for the duration of the Winter Olympics and Paralympics by some 80,000 members of the Russian police, army and intelligence services. These forces are playing for even higher stakes than the athletes: ensuring that the games are protected from violence—already explicitly threatened by Islamic extremists—from a number of credible sources.
The greatest threat comes from the Caucasian Emirate, a Jihadist group directly descended from Shamil Basaev’s Chechen Martyrs, who harried Russian forces in the ‘90s during the brutal Chechen conflict. Responsible for several high-profile terrorist attacks, including the 2002 Nord-Ost theatre siege and the 2004 Beslan school massacre, the group faded from view until their re-emergence in 2007 as the Caucasian Emirate, a radical product of North Caucasian grievance with the aim of establishing a caliphate throughout the region including Dagestan and Ingushetia.
The Chechen president announced the death of their leader, Doku Umarov, in a security operation in late 2013. Regardless of this plausible claim, Umarov’s call to arms in mid-2013 was trenchant and unequivocal, urging militants to attack the games which he described as “demonic dances on the bones of our ancestors”. Whilst the level of Umarov’s control amongst the many radicalised groups in the Caucasus is questionable, his exhortations were soon translated into violence. The 29 and 30 December saw two suicide bombs explode in Volgograd at the railway and trolley bus stations following a car bomb in nearby Pyatigorsk.
In intercepting such threats, Russian security forces will need to be wary also of the ‘break-away’ republic of Abkhazia, only kilometres away from the border. Officially part of Georgia, which was expelled in the war of 1992-93, it was invaded by Russia in 2008—a symptom of a long historical feud between Georgia and Russia. This beautiful but often lawless territory is suited to the passage of arms and personnel from the North Caucasus down through the disputed Pankisi Gorge. The Russians will have to capitalize on their significant influence here to deter encroachment from this direction.
The nature and targets of threat are entirely dependent of the substantial security in place. Two suggestions are of concern:
- The first is that a number of ‘black widow’ suicide bombers may already be within the ‘ring of steel’
- The second is the fact that seasoned analysts, such as SecureBio’s Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE, assess the chemical and biological threat as ‘substantial’ with the prominent threats originating from hate groups, lone wolf actors and domestic terrorist groups, predominantly originating from the North-Caucasus.
Others wishing to do harm can be added Russian nationalist and neo-Nazi hate groups who may target ‘non-whites’ or lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) people and events.
On a lesser, albeit distressing scale, criminality is expected to increase. This deadly array of intent notwithstanding the deterrent effect of this gargantuan security effort should not be discounted.
The deflection of violence from the Olympic venues themselves may, however, result in attacks in the transport routes and hubs that feed the event. It is here, amongst the crowded trains, packed hotels and airports, that terrorists may still feed off the oxygen of Olympic publicity.
Photo: Police officers with sniffer dogs trained to search for explosives, patrol at the Olympic Park in the Adler district of Sochi, January 28, 2014. Credit: REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk