Terror at the Games?

Will terrorists attack the Olympic Summer Games in Athens? Low advance ticket sales indicate fans are staying away, many due to security concerns.

 Will terrorists attack the Olympic Summer Games in Athens? Low advance ticket sales indicate fans are staying away, many due to security concerns.  The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Athens Organizing Committee (ATHOC) have given top priority to physical protection for the Games, forcing the Greek government to devote four times the financial resources to security as were spent at the highly-successful and safe Sydney Games of 2000. An army of security personnel, over fifty thousand, will defend every competition site and tourist hotel. Authorities in Athens promise a danger-free Olympics.

Still, as the first Summer Games of the post-9/11 world, the question remains. No previous security standard is adequate. What are the threats and how adequate are the defenses?

The threats divide into non-Al Qaeda groups, both domestic and foreign, and Al Qaeda. The local terrorist danger lies with small anarchist organizations likely to engage in small-scale but noisy bombings. This may sound serious to someone not familiar with the regularity of such events in the Greek capital, where they are little more than background noise, and they will certainly attract prominent attention from the global media covering the Games. Still, such attacks are comparative pinpricks and no real threat to successful conduct of the Games.

Indeed, one very positive result of giving the Olympics to Athens was the breaking up of the most famous and lethal Greek terrorist organization, "November 17". After more than a quarter century of terrorist activity - and

Greek government inactivity - the bulk of "November 17" is now behind bars because the Greek authorities recognized the real danger of an Olympics boycott by major countries if they did not finally do something about this prominent terrorist organization. While some "November 17" members, including most of the original leadership, remain at large, they are not a danger to the Games. This is the credit side of ledger.

The Games will attract anti-US, anti-capitalist and anti-globalization demonstrations which may contain some terrorist elements. This is a problem for any contemporary event with a global audience. The risk will be compounded by the presence in Athens of over forty heads of government and other VIPs who may be the object of violence unrelated to the Olympics. The new super-liner "Queen Mary II" will be used as super-VIP lodging and presents a juicy target for demonstrations and violence. A prime target will be former President George H.W. Bush as symbolic head of the American delegation. His presence is really an unnecessary headache for Greek police forces with far too much on their plate. The large number of personnel devoted to single-person security for Bush and many other VIPs will detract from the far more important police task of seeking out potential threats. However, the Greek authorities welcome these prestige visitors as foreign expressions of confidence in Greek preparations for the Games.

The massive Greek security preparations should be adequate, if not ample, to deal with these "normal" domestic and imported terrorist dangers.

Then, there is Al Qaeda. No outsider can say with confidence what Bin Laden and his associates think. They may have decided years ago not to target the Athens Games for reasons both logical and otherwise. There are some practical considerations on this side of the argument. As the Olympics occur within a limited time period with massive security, Al Qaeda would lose flexibility in preparing an attack and risk exposure of its operatives. They cannot enjoy strategic surprise in Athens. Hopefully, then, Al Qaeda leaders today are laughing at the vast sums being spent to thwart a non-attack.

Sadly, the logic on the other side is very strong. The Summer Olympics, wherever held, are the athletic equivalent of the World Trade Center towers.  A successful attack would give Al Qaeda three things it craves: a global audience, an opportunity to demonstrate its power and ruthlessness and the chance to kill large numbers of people. The sheer scale and inherent vulnerability of the Games - with over 120 competition sites and hundreds of thousands of athletes, spectators and media - must be tempting to Al Qaeda.  That many Muslims will participate means nothing. Muslims died in New York and Madrid.

In an odd way, the Olympics may even provoke special malice from Bin Laden as a manifestation of polytheist blasphemy. Most people regard references to Apollo and other pre-Christian aspects of the Olympics as just a bit of cultural tradition. However, a fundamentalist knows that his Prophet struggled first and foremost against polytheism and only later against Christianity. Bin Laden may view the Parthenon as the religious temple it once was rather than as an architectural monument. People who could rationalize the destruction of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan may interpret the ancient rituals of the modern Olympics as blasphemy to be destroyed rather than as marketing technique for a television audience.

Above all, Al Qaeda may see the 2004 Games as the best chance it will ever have to hit an Olympics. The Beijing Games in 2008 will be a fortress in a police state, but Greece is a small country with many vulnerabilities. It is next door to the Middle East and Balkans, with long and very porous borders by land and sea (factors not true for the Sydney Games). Anyone with determination can get into Greece and could have for years before these Games. Greece also has a huge Moslem population of mostly Albanian migrants (almost a third of a million in the Athens area) within which small cells of terrorists might find cover.