Terrorist threat haunts Olympics
With the Olympics well under way now, fears of a terrorist attack in Sochi have proven unfounded so far. What is the likelihood of an attempt?
There are several points worth considering:
Russian President Vladimir Putin views the games as a symbol of the Kremlin’s strategic re-emergence.
The games are transpiring near a region the Kremlin views as a security thorn.
A terrorist operation would be probably be undertaken by Chechen affiliated groups or individuals.
Any attack would likely transpire against Russia’s Olympic team, or at an event with a high number of Russians in attendance.
A key difference between the Sochi Olympics and previous games is these Olympics’ proximity to a regional hotspot: the North Caucasus.
The Kremlin sees the North Caucasus is an irritant and a strategic cornerstone. Moscow views the region as a defensive barrier against Turkish and Iranian influence in the region. It is an aggravation considering the area has a strong militant Islamist ambiance.
The North Caucasus has been a challenge for the Kremlin periodically since the 1800s. The Russians brought the area under its auspices during this period, yet not without a struggle lasting several decades.
The North Caucasus is home to several ethnic groups, including the anti-Russian Chechens. The Kremlin fought two wars against Chechen militants in the mid- and late 1990s, conflicts which cost more than 100,000 lives. Moscow officially ended operations in Chechnya several years ago, but militant Islamist-linked violence continued. It has escalated to the North Caucasus areas of Dagestan and Ingustia.
The conflict has given birth to an organization called The Caucasus Emirate. Its principal objective is the establishment of an Islamic state within the North Caucasus. The same group shares financial and recruitment links with al-Qaeda. It also allowed the Afghan-Pakistani based organization to establish training camps in the North Caucasus.
The Emirate’s leader, Doku Umarov, has asserted the group is interested in attacking the Sochi Games.
The Caucasus Emirate is one of two threats to the Sochi Olympics.
The other potential menace are the “black widows” — women whose husbands have been killed during the North Caucasus conflict. They have initiated suicide attacks against Russian targets. The widows have been responsible for various operations in Moscow, Volgograd and throughout the North Caucasus region.
An operation against the Sochi Olympics would face several obstacles. Russia’s authorities have initiated an array of security measures to address the threat. These include a “controlled zone“ near Olympic venues and a “forbidden zone“ in areas within Sochi.
The controlled zone limits access to individual spectators and athletes. It mandates providing proof of identity and tickets. The forbidden zone requires vehicles to have special accreditation, plus local registration. The security measures also prohibit firearms, explosives and ammunition.
An attempted attack by the Caucasus Emirate or a “black widow“ cannot be discounted. It would be surprising if they targeted non-Russian athletics, competitions or venues, however. That would give Moscow an excuse to initiate operations against militant Islamist elements throughout the region. An operation may occur against a Russian athletic housing compound, a venue with a large number of Russians spectators present, or a competition of symbolic, nationalistic importance for the Russians such as a hockey game.
Matthew Kennedy has a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He’s lived in Europe, Asia and Russia. Comments or questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.