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January 31, 2014

Can Terrorists Penetrate Ring of Steel Around Sochi Olympics?

by James Brooke

A deadly bombing of a train station in southern Russia last month is the kind of nightmare that Russian authorities seek to avoid in Sochi, the southern Russian city where the Winter Olympics open on February 7.

Two weeks ago, two men from a jihadist group in Russia’s Dagestan claimed they carried out the bombing that killed 18.  One warned Russian President Vladimir Putin in a video:

“If you hold these Olympics, we will give you a present for the innocent Muslim blood being spilled all around the world - in Afghanistan, in Somalia, in Syria,”  the man said.  Then he warned Olympic visitors:  “For the tourists who come, there will be a present, too.”

This week, the Olympic torch rally peacefully made its way through Dagestan and across the conflict-torn Caucasus.

In this region, Russian police say that last year they killed 260 Islamic militants and seized 320 homemade bombs.

Protected by isolation

But security experts say that largely Christian Sochi is physically and culturally isolated from Russia’s mostly Muslim Caucasus. Defense expert Pavel Felgenhauer says this isolation protects the Olympics.

“Sochi in the 19th century was totally ethnically cleansed by the Czarist military forces of all indigenous population, and it was re-populated by Russians and other peoples from other parts of the empire: Georgians, Armenians, even Estonians, Greeks,” said Felgenhauer, who writes a defense column for Moscow’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

“There is no indigenous support for jihadist terrorism in Sochi. And Sochi can be bottled up," he said.  The mountains that are the background of the city, right now during the winter, are just simply physically impassable. There are no roads there, and there is no way even a well-trained person could get through at this time of the year,” Felgenhauer said.

"Ring of steel"

President Putin said he is using this geography to protect Sochi with a “ring of steel.”

“If we allow ourselves to exhibit weakness, to exhibit fear, to show our fear, this means that we will contribute to terrorists in achieving their goals,” he recently told foreign and Russian reporters.

In what looks like the most heavily protected Olympics in history, Russia is deploying 60,000 police and soldiers - 26 for each athlete.

“Sochi has been more made into a country of its own,” said Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University and a specialist on Russia’s police. “You need to have a special visa, an entry documentation to get in there. Inhabitants of the area have been brought under considerable controls. You can't drive a private car freely,” he said.

Galeotti adds that the Russians will be monitoring all communications by Olympic guests, visitors and journalists. “They've rolled out a brand new series of electronic measures, basically to intercept every single text message, every single e-mail conversation,” he said.

But some terrorists may slip through. Last week, police distributed to hotel receptionists wanted posters for three women in head scarves.

In Russia, they are feared as “black widows” - jihadist women who carry out suicide bombings to avenge the deaths of their husbands.