Assessing the terrorist threat against Sochi
© RIA Novosti. Mihail Mokrushin
Throughout Russia, clocks are counting down to the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The importance of the event, to both government and country, is hard to overstate. President Vladimir Putin has vested much of his personal credibility in the games, as well as the economic future of Southern Russia.
Costs are estimated to run to $33.5 billion, making the Sochi Games the most expensive Olympics in history. Thirteen massive new facilities, plus a Formula One track, are currently under construction. The investment in infrastructure is no less impressive, with roads, railways and an airport terminal being constructed to service the games.
Security is one of the key talking points of the Sochi games, of course. On July 3, Doku Umarov, leader of the separatist organization the Caucasus Emirate released a video stating that the 2014 games would be “prevented.”
Umarov had previously claimed responsibility for the 2011 terror attack on Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, the 2010 bombing of the Moscow metro, and the 2009 bombing of the Nevsky Express.
In the video, Umarov not only called on all Muslims within the region to use “maximum force” against the Sochi Games, but also signaled an end to the 2012 moratorium against attacks on Russian civilian targets. The moratorium, Umarov claimed, had been a gesture of solidarity with Russian opposition protesters.
The excuse they needed?
“The Olympics are really the world’s games” Frank Cilluffo, former White House special assistant to the president for homeland security and an associate vice president at George Washington University, told The Moscow News. “Everyone will be watching. Hosting the Games is therefore a point of genuine national pride.”
The Olympics are also an opportunity to cause the host state harm – and the Sochi Games may be no exception. “Looking to the Games in Sochi, you combine a symbolic target with the long history of bloody violence in the nearby North Caucasus, and you have a potentially toxic and explosive mix,” Cilluffo said.
This year’s muted opposition rallies in Russia may also have given Caucasus Emirate leaders the excuse they needed to terrorize civilians again.
“The moratorium was introduced at the time when public protests against Russian authorities were widespread,” Valery Dzutsev, North Caucasus analyst at American think tank the Jamestown Foundation, told The Moscow News. “By the summer [of] 2013, the situation… does not seem to be nearly as threatening to the Kremlin as it [once] was. So the insurgents may have decided that the initial rationale for implementing the moratorium did not exist anymore.”
“How much of a threat the group may pose outside of the Caucasus themselves is unclear,” Matthew Henman, senior analyst at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, told The Moscow News. “The Caucasus Emirate has been coming under a lot of security forces pressure over the past few years [as Sochi approaches], and it isn’t at all clear whether the group, or elements within the group, retain the ability to carry out decisive operations beyond the North Caucasus.”
“This is somewhat less of an issue in terms of Sochi, given its relative proximity to the North Caucasus, but the high level of security surrounding the Winter Olympics may make carrying out a successful attack a very challenging proposition for the group,” Henman added.
The authorities respond
The Russian Anti-Terrorist Committee’s response to Umarov’s statement was brief and unyielding. “All of Russia’s state institutions, special services and law enforcement bodies are constantly implementing a set of measures aimed at providing security for Russian citizens,” its official statement read.
The response from Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen republic and close Kremlin ally, was more emotional. ” [Umarov] is Satan,” Kadyrov told journalists. “I am certain that we will eliminate him before the Olympics.”
Yet according to Dzutsev, Kadyrov may be overstating his ability to go after Umarov. “The Olympics in Sochi are Putin’s labor of love, and when Umarov abuses that… even verbally, Kadyrov understandably becomes very upset,” he said. “But he cannot do much more.”
According to Henman, killing Umarov may not necessarily make the Caucasus Emirate organization go away. “As such, even were Umarov to be killed, then a successor would be appointed and the group would continue as before,” he said. “Each of the jamaats [assemblies] has suffered the loss of multiple emirs over the past six or seven years, and these deaths rarely entail a loss of capability or intent.”
It can be said that there is a bitter irony in that a spectacle designed to celebrate humanity at its best should now attract the attention of humanity at its very worst. Worse yet, according to the experts, the threat of terror from the North Caucasus will persist long after the Sochi Games are done.
“The federal and respective republican governments have engaged in concerted counter-terrorism offensives for several years now in an attempt to decisively defeat the Caucasus Emirate,” Henman said. “While they have somewhat succeeded in reducing the group’s operational tempo, they have not addressed the underlying causes of the insurgency.”