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January 28, 2014

Mounting Threats Against Sochi Olympics Worry Terrorism Experts

by Arash Arabasadi

The Olympic Games in Sochi are just weeks away, but the terror threats keep coming. The biggest concern: The Northern Caucasus, Sochi’s neighbors to the East. The region is home to separatists who for years have waged a war of independence against Russia. Recent bombings in Volgograd, north of Sochi, have experts on high alert. Some question holding the Winter Games in close proximity to those who have vowed to fight Russia to the death.

One month ago, despite promises of heightened security at the Olympic Games, two suicide attacks killed 34 people in Volgograd, some 700 kilometers north of Sochi. A militant Islamist group in Russia's North Caucasus claimed responsibility in a video posted on an Islamist website.

Ian von Gordon, who is Director of Operations at the Diplomatic Protection Training Institute in Youngstown, Ohio, said, “Chechen rebels have already shown that they’re targeting trains, airplanes, transport, highways.” The institute provides security to civilians in high threat environments. He's an expert on terror groups in the Northern Caucasus.  

“Since Sochi was announced as a venue, there’s no doubt that they sent cells in immediately to embed themselves and, to that end, it’s very likely that there’s people on the staff at the Winter Olympics who are possibly part of a cell,” said von Gordon.

Including those who have been building the games' venues, said Glen Howard at the Jamestown Foundation, a research institute in Washington, D.C. “You’ve had over 100,000 laborers come from all over Russia to work there, and Central Asia. It is impossible to verify whether all these people that have worked in Sochi as laborers… whether they were a security risk.”

Motive, opportunity

Von Gordon said terrorists may not match the pictures many of us are used to seeing. “We’re looking for the tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman. Traditionally, Chechen rebels have used young women, usually widows of soldiers, but that’s not necessarily always the case.”

He’s referring to the so-called “black widows," widows of slain rebel fighters.  

Militants also carry out more conventional attacks, however, like the 2004 takeover of a school in Beslan, where 334 hostages died, more than half of them children.

“Putin has strategically located the Games very close to the Caucasus, where he’s basically daring those people," said von Gordon. "That creates a very dangerous situation, because now you have opportunity. You have motive. You have an unprecedented situation where you have people from all over the world - civilians - participating in a highly publicized event.”

Juan Zarate, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he expected to see cooperation with the international community. But the opposite is happening.

“The Russians have grown more and more concerned over the threat, and are concerned over the perception of insecurity, and therefore have not wanted to allow the United States and other, security services in on the ground to assist,” said Zarate.

While Russia battles a bloody insurgency not far from next month's Winter Olympics, it’s likely the world will be watching to see what happens in the streets of Sochi.