WASHINGTON, January 22, 2014 — With only weeks before the Olympics start, there are new concerns about security at the Sochi Olympics.
The newest threat comes as Russian security and intelligence officials warned they are searching for three Muslim women who may be planning bombing attacks at the Olympics. According to statements released by Moscow, the so-called “black widows,” who are the wives of members of Islamist Chechen terrorist group killed by security forces, may be planning suicide bombings during the Olympics to embarrass Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Earlier this week, terrorists released a video tape threatening attacks at Sochi. In the video posted on a Jihadist forum, two men dressed in black standing in front of a black banner printed with a religious verse usually associated with al Qaeda take credit for bombings last month in Volgograd and warn, “We’ve prepared a present for you and all tourists who’ll come over. If you will hold the Olympics, you’ll get a present from us for the Muslim blood that’s been spilled.”
The two Russian-speaking men claim to be from the Chechen group Vilayat Dagestan. They also claim solidarity for Muslims in other parts of the world.
Terrorists launched a successful attack last December, when bomb blasts rocked Volgograd. At least 14 people were killed when a female suicide bomber detonated an explosion on a bus in Volgograd during rush hour. A bombing at Volgograd’s main train station killed 17 people.
Volgograd is 650 kilometers or about 403 miles from Sochi. It is an important transportation hub, with railway lines going from Volgograd in five directions across Russia.
The bombings are the deadliest terrorist attacks in Russia since the 2011 suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport which killed 35 and injured more than 180. A Chechen separatist group, the Caucasus Emirate, led by Doku Umarov, claimed responsibility for that attack and promised further bombings.
Although no one immediately claimed responsibility for the most recent attacks, Russian officials have suggested Chechen separatists are the likely perpetrators. A U.S. intelligence officer who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the bombings said, “The attacks match what we have seen from Chechen separatists in the past. There is certainly strong reason to believe they are responsible.”
Last July, Doku Umarov released a video urging Russian Islamist fighters to use “maximum force” to stop the Olympics. Umarov compared holding the Olympics in Sochi to performing “Satanic dances” on the graves of Muslims who died fighting the Russian Army in Sochi in the 1800s.
Russia expert Matthew Clements of IHS says the Jihadist militant groups are based primarily in the North Caucasus republics of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. Although they loosely fall under the leadership of Umarov and the Caucasus Emirate, most groups operate independently. The goal of the Caucasus Emirate is the removal of the “occupying” Russian authorities from the Caucasus and the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate across the North Caucasus.
Analysts have warned that terrorist attacks are likely to increase ahead of the Olympics, scheduled to begin in February, as a way to bring attention to their cause and strike at Russian President Putin.
Putin almost certainly will raise security around Sochi and will redouble intelligence efforts against separatists in the next several weeks in hopes of avoiding future attacks. Putin has launched a major public relations campaign ahead of the games. Last week, Putin released several high profile political prisoners, including former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, members of the punk band Pussy Riot, and Greenpeace activists.
Clements note that the attack demonstrates the ability of militants to strike soft targets outside their usual area of operations, the North Caucasus. He explains that security measures around the Olympic venues are “very extensive” including “a tight security net around the main venues and associated infrastructure such as the Olympic village, as well as a “security zone” which has been established across much of Krasnodar territory.”
According to Clements, “The high levels of security will make it difficult for any militant to gain access to the main venues and undertake an attack.”
However, other targets are far less secure. Says Clements, “There is certainly a threat to softer targets, such as transport infrastructure and areas with a high density of civilians, in and around Sochi.”
Security expert Chad Jenkins of the Jenkins Group agrees. He notes that Putin has implemented a “Ring of Steel” around the Olympic Games for safety, which will make an attack inside the actual games difficult. He notes, however, that the games are “extremely vulnerable.”
“The problem,” says Jenkins, “is that security officials have to be right all the time. Terrorists only have to be right once.”
Washington is also clearly concerned about attacks. It has sent a group of FBI agents to boost the on-the-ground forces, is working closely with Russian intelligence and providing new security technology, and will station Naval ships off the coast of Sochi for contingency operations. “These ships most likely will be on hand for evacuation or other types of support if needed,” explains Jenkins.
Any attacks in Russia during the Olympics would seriously dent Putin’s credibility.
Clements explains, “Firstly, Putin and his government have staked a lot on holding a successful Olympics as part of their efforts to present Russia as a modern and powerful country. Any attacks, either at the games or even at other locations in Russia, during the Olympics will cast a cloud over the games and undermine perceptions of them having been successful.”
The second threat to Putin involves his promise to end the insurgent threat from the North Caucasus. Notes Clements, “Arguing that this threat is declining will be very difficult if a successful attack is undertaken during the Games.”