This weekend the 2014 Winter Olympics kick off in Sochi, Russia literally in a “warzone”. We have done numerous interviews on the security implications of the games and herein are a few points for consideration.
Putting on a major global event is extremely complicated in the midst of a low-grade war and a struggle for independence being waged by Islamic fundamentalists against a world power like Russia. We first heard publicly about this southern republic “jihadist” struggle in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings last spring. The Tsarnaev brothers brought this flavor of terror to the streets of Boston where Americans were initially shocked and perplexed at why this struggle was wrought on innocent Americans.
Americans soon learned of yet another, less familiar, Islamic struggle against the west and wondered why we were targeted only to conclude that our victimization was merely predicated on being part of the west coupled with being a relatively soft target in major global event where terrorists can exploit their message in their senseless and brutal way.
The conflict between Russia and its southern, predominantly Islamic, republics has been ongoing for centuries but it has peaked in recent years. President Putin has struck back hard against this independence movement that has left a trail of innocent victims and bloodshed from the Beslan School and the Moscow theater hostage crises to numerous attacks against the Russian transportation systems to include deadly bombings of rail lines, trams and buses. Clearly, Islamic terrorists remain obsessed with transportation systems. The visions of Boston and the child victims remain burned in our national psyche but unfortunately the numbers pale in comparison to the hundreds of children left horrifically dead at Beslan School attack in September of 2004.
It has been and will continue to be a war of wills between President Putin, a former spy and proud nationalist who refuses to blink in the face of ongoing terror attacks by his nemeses. These Olympic Games are Putin’s showcase that he fought so hard to bring to Sochi on southern Russian shores of the Black Sea and he will risk no chance at seeing that these games go on uninterrupted.
Just down the road are the breakaway republics of Chechnya and Dagestan home of Russia’s own, “Osama bin Laden” in the person of Doku Umarov. He and his followers have sworn to do whatever it takes to “rain on Putin’s parade” wreaking havoc and bloodshed in any way possible. Consequently, Putin has implemented an extreme security apparatus around the Games calling it his “Ring of Steel” consisting of nearly 100,000 military, police and special forces units forming concentric rings of security around the games to include the 180 degrees of sea to the south of the Olympic venue with ocean sonar, aerial surveillance and marine fast-boat assets patrolling the waterways.
The Russians know the threat is real; Umarov has swore in an open appeal last July to his followers to attack the games and avenge the deaths of their Islamic brothers. Additional proof of their intent was realized when the Russian security services intercepted a massive cache of weapons in the Sochi area in May 2012 to include high-powered firearms, grenade launchers and even surface to air missiles.
Suicide attacks against the railway station and a street tram in Volgograd, a major transportation hub just some 400 miles north of Sochi, just weeks before the games put the Russians and all involved in the games on edge and the Russians tightened the “ring of steel” even more. Most recent suicide bombings in Russia have been carried out by “Black Widows” or woman survivors of Islamic Mujahidin or “freedom fighters” who have died in the cause. Because Russian security services recognize that they are the most likely to carry out acts of terror, numerous counter-terrorism measures have been put in place. Many of these counter-terror measures would never see the light of day under our constitution and judicial and citizen oversight but the Russian legal and security landscape is far different than the U.S.
The Russians implemented a background check system on all Olympic ticket holders as well as a mandated Visa requirement to enter the country. Travel within the game venues is significantly restricted and fans must pass through numerous security checkpoints once inside the sport venues. The sale and distribution any type of ammunition, explosive or chemical that could be weaponized has been restricted.
The Russians implemented new laws in their counter-terrorism package to include a 10 year prison sentence for attending any type of terrorist training camps. Surviving family members are civilly and financially responsible now under Russian law for any damage inflicted by a family member for any act of terror. Finally and probably the most egregious of steps taken, the Russians have collected a DNA sample of all women in the Dagestan area to be logged in a DNA database which could be matched against any physical evidence found in any future suicide bombings. Needless to say and a topic that has gotten some coverage in recent days is intent of the Russians to scoop and analyze any and all communications out of the air; these will include telephone conversations, emails and tweets.
The Russians have taken all possible steps to keep the games safe. It is my opinion and that of most counter-terrorism professionals that the Olympic venues should remain safe but those venues outside the “ring of steel” are most vulnerable. These targets would include Russia’s vast transportation systems, government and other soft western targets such as hotels, businesses and the like. This not a zero-sum-game for the terrorists; they always look to exploit and attack symbolic targets and the Olympic games would be their “gold medal” particularly because of the building animus in recent years against President Putin and knowing how these games are his personal pride. Terrorists also always look to strike when the opportunity is greatest to exploit global coverage and maximize the opportunity to showcase their ideology or cause; what would be a better stage than when the whole world is watching.
We can only hope the best for our and all athletes participating in the games and that the counter-terrorism measures put in place based on good intelligence sharing by the Russians, the U.S. and other western nations maintains not only the spirit and meaning of the Olympic Games but a safe XXII Winter Olympiad for all.
Tags: Chechnyan terrorism, Olympic security, Sochi