Sochi 2014: The Terrorist Threat

Al Qaeda-inspired Chechen jihadists are eager to sow mayhem.

There’s been no shortage of political controversy surrounding the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympic Games. But the tensions are obscuring a potentially vitally important security issue: Could the Sochi 2014 Games become another Olympics where terrorists exploit it to propagate their political views?

In 1972, the Olympic spirit of peace and international cooperation was shattered with the murder of eleven Israeli athletes by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. Aiming for the release of prisoners held in Israeli and German jails, Black September used the Munich games to call attention to the demands for a Palestinian state. Today the justified fear is that the Caucasus Emirate—Russia’s own Islamist terrorist organization seeking to create a caliphate throughout the North Caucasus and certain parts of Russia—will attack the Olympics to bolster its standing and visibility.

The Emirate’s predecessors were responsible for some of the most atrocious and reprehensible examples of religiously inspired violence: the 2002 Moscow theater siege (130 hostages killed), and the 2004 Beslan school siege (331 killed, mostly children). The Caucasus Emirate was formed in 2007 and was the culmination of a gradual evolution towards an Al Qaeda- and radical-Islam-inspired ideology from its genesis in nationalist resistance to Russian control. And the Emirate’s Leader, Doku Umarov, has continued his predecessor’s policy of terrorist attacks outside of the North Caucasus; altering the insurgency from a Chechen orientation into one encompassing the whole of the North Caucasus, “We consider the CE and Russia as a single theater of war...We are not in a hurry. The path has been chosen, we know our tasks, and we will not turn back, Insha’Allah, from this path. Today, the battlefield is not just Chechnya and the Caucasus Emirate, but also the whole [of] Russia. The situation is visible to everybody who has eyes. The Jihad is spreading, steadily and inevitably, everywhere.”

Adding to the potential for an attack, over the last decade, the Caucasus Emirate increasingly turned to terrorist tactics, including inside Russia, to compensate for the increasingly ruthless yet effective tactics of local and federal authorities. (Part of Russia’s strategy in pacifying the region has been to cede authority and co-opt local warlords, including the avid fan of Instagram and friend of Steven Seagal, Ramzan Kadyrov.) Umarov shares his predecessor’s predilection for terrorist attacks, commenting “To anybody who calls me a terrorist, I will just laugh in their face, be they politicians or journalists.” (He also re-activated the “Riyadus-Salikhin Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of Chechen Martyrs,” created by his predecessor Shamil Basayev to undertake suicide operations inside Russia.) This has led to a number of recent terrorist attacks, the most spectacular of which have taken place inside Russia: the 2009 Nevsky Express railroad bombing (26 killed); the 2010 Moscow metro bombings (39 killed), the 2011 Domodedovo airport bombing (36 killed). The lack of manpower and willing recruits makes an assault by suicide bombers (alone or in squads) more likely than a coordinated hostage taking operation where the loss of a dozen highly trained operatives would be impermissible.

But the jihad in the Caucasus has been under increasing strain in recent years. With Syria becoming the destination of choice for aspiring jihadis, the Emirate has struggled to attract new recruits and financial support, leading Umarov to publicly pray for the Caucasus to receive “true Muslims who will always be ready to lay down their lives to defend the word of Allah.” Similarly, acknowledging a plethora of aspiring jihadi recruits in Syria, on July 30 a previously unknown Syrian jihadi warlord, Salakhuddin, released a YouTube clip, in Russian, calling for volunteers from the North Caucasus to stay and wage Jihad locally, despite lacking the financial and military support available in Syria, and to “Prepare for the so-called Olympic Games in Sochi.”

But due to internal leadership conflicts, Umarov announced a moratorium on attacks on civilians and operations inside of Russia in January 2012. However, the opportunity to attack Sochi was apparently too good to pass up. On July 2, Umarov released a four-minute-long YouTube clip in which he ends the moratorium and calls for jihadis to stop the Games that were built “on the bones of many, many Muslims killed...and buried on our lands extending to the Black Sea.”

Regardless of the Emirate’s operational shortcomings and realizing the potential of an attack on the Olympics, Russia has spared no effort in ensuring that the games will go uninterrupted. Russia has extensively examined the preparations undertaken for the 2012 London Olympics, and used the 2012 APEC summit in Vladivostok as a litmus test for their preparations. Every security agency has been intimately involved in preparations; resulting in twenty-five thousand police, eight thousand other security troops, and twenty to thirty thousand regular-army troops on call for the games (the London Olympics featured twelve thousand police and eighteen thousand troops). And multitudes of scenarios have been examined, from insurgents infiltrating the construction crews to seaborne incursion. The Interior Ministry (MVD) has even proposed a ban on gun sales and limiting alcohol sales in addition to an extensive security zone that has been created around Sochi.

Moreover, Russia has taken proactive steps to limit the ability of the Emirate to undertake an attack. The insurgency has seen several of its top leaders killed or jailed in recent months, and the Kremlin has been reasserting its authority in the restive republics of the North Caucasus. But despite these efforts, the Caucasus Emirate still remains a viable and deadly threat to the Sochi Olympics.

NYU professor Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security services and the Caucasus, recently told me that an attack would most likely occur if a good opportunity presented itself, whether by exploiting any fortuitous familial or ethnic relationships that are present among the construction crews or from corruption within the security services. Galeotti also noted that the potential for an attack would increase as the actual date of the games approaches, so as to allow enough time for people to cancel their hotel and flight reservations. With today’s twenty-four-hour news cycle, a political statement can happen just as effectively a week before the games as during them.

Russia has rightly taken extensive steps to ensure the security of the upcoming games. But there can never be 100 percent security, and both history and recent statements by jihadi leaders illustrate the potential dangers to the Olympics. Whether or not the Caucasus Emirate will attempt to recreate a hostage situation like in Munich, or more likely attempt to infiltrate suicide bombers or smaller scale bombings remains to be seen, as proclaiming your intent does not automatically translate into the ability to undertake such actions. But Russian authorities should not take the statements by the terrorist leaders lightly; they intend to convey inevitability, not possibility.

Andrew S. Bowen is an editorial assistant for The Interpreter, a Russian language translation and analysis journal, and a member of the strategic-consulting firm Wikistrat.