Russian authorities have spent an estimated $2 billion to shore up security in advance of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, which begin February 7. Thousands of security personnel are patrolling what is described as a “ring of steel” around the Black Sea resort to prevent any terrorist attack.
The main threat comes from separatist and jihadi groups in the North Caucasus, especially from Chechnya and Dagestan, located some 500 kilometers from Sochi.
Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism with Georgetown University, said many groups come under an umbrella organization known as the "Caucasus Emirate" - "a militant group led by Doku Umarov, who’s death had been reported some weeks ago, but apparently is still alive. And he himself has vowed explicitly to disrupt the games.”
Focus on Sochi
In late December, a group affiliated with Umarov claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings that killed more than 30 people in Volgograd, the largest city closest to Sochi, some 600 kilometers away.
Thomas de Waal, who has written extensively on the North Caucasus, said the security threat comes from a “low-intensity but serious Islamic insurgency which is left over from the second war in Chechnya, which finished about 10 years ago and was never completely resolved.”
Various groups threaten Winter Olympics
“We are not talking about a kind of unified single organization which is fighting the Russian state,” said de Waal. “There is one self-styled organization called the ‘Caucasus Emirate,’ but people have some questions about how serious it really is. But we are talking about a number of quite desperate individuals who have an Islamist ideology, who have a personal loathing for the Russian state and for President Putin and who certainly want to disrupt the Sochi games if they can.”
De Waal said Moscow is faced with a problem.
“For the Russian state it would be easier if there was one group they could combat and they knew who they were," he said. "We are talking about a lot of rogue individuals in some cases, some of whom have a kind of personal motive of revenge, some of them a bit of organization - but people who it is very hard to monitor.”
Difficult to track 'black widows'
Bruce Hoffman said it is very difficult to keep track of those female suicide bombers known as the “black widows.”
“The ‘black widows’ are styled as the widows or spouses of male jihadists who have perished fighting against Russian forces whether it’s in Chechnya, Dagestan or other parts of the Caucasus,” said Hoffman. “They take that name in that they are so inconsolable, given their sorrow that they have vowed to avenge the deaths of their - it’s not only spouses, husbands, but brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins. And of course, revenge is one of the most visceral of emotions.”
Hoffman said the “black widows” are responsible for some high-profile bombings and terrorist attacks.
Threat of attacks outside of Sochi
“For more than a decade, women have played a very important and certainly a very prominent role in terrorism emanating from the Caucasus. Both the seizure of the Moscow Theatre ,” said Hoffman, “the seizure in 2004 of the school in Beslan, women were certainly involved in those operations - as well as in several suicide bombings of the Moscow subway [2004, 2010]. And then, of course, also in 2004, a woman with a bomb concealed allegedly in her brassiere blew up an internal, domestic Russian flight.”
Many analysts say the Sochi Winter Olympic Games will be well secured, making it difficult for terrorists to act. But experts also say there is a good chance of terrorist attacks away from the Olympic venues - anywhere in Russia.