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.
Then there are the much-maligned Greek police, security and intelligence services. To be fair, the Greek policeman's lot is not a happy one. Under-paid and under-trained, he works in a society where most crime is of passion, tax evasion or (among the migrants) small-scale theft. The Greek police have little experience dealing with serious organized crime and less of combating international organized crime, which is why crime groups from the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union use Greece as the soft underbelly of the European Union. The Greek police lack the skills needed to uncover a deeply-laid and well-planned Al Qaeda plot. In addition, while it has been three decades since the restoration of democracy after the military dictatorship, far too many Greeks still see the police as a manifestation of tyranny and will not give it cooperation. Greece is a society of great patriotism but low civic responsibility, with the police near the bottom of the pecking order.
In truth, any country hosting the Olympics in 2004 would face a near impossible security task. Even the superb Australian organization of four years ago might have proven inadequate, while the IOC chose Beijing for the 2008 Games in part because China remains a police state. The IOC awarded the 2004 Games to Athens seven years ago for political and sentimental reasons, and could not anticipate then what they might face from Al Qaeda. Still, if these Games were in Rome - the other European city considered for 2004 - the situation would be better, but not good enough. Italian security services are vastly superior to their Greek counterparts, but even they would be unable to guarantee security against Al Qaeda. No democratic state can. Greece is a country of strong civil liberties, admirable openness to outsiders, ineffective public administration and a live-and-let-live approach to law enforcement. Precisely those attributes which make Greece an attractive place to live and visit make it vulnerable to Al Qaeda.
Sadly, Greek authorities were very slow to respond to the challenges. Years of preparation time were lost, never to be recouped. Even after September 11, 2001, Greek leaders resisted multinational cooperation to protect the Athens Games. Only under serious pressure from the IOC and major foreign Olympic committees did this change, but grudgingly. After the Madrid bombings this spring, the government finally invited EU and NATO cooperation, and large numbers of foreign experts are now working with Greek services. Still, many preparations - including a complex communications system and a web of surveillance cameras - will not be installed in time for adequate testing and training. Vital security aspects of the Games still have a distinctly ad hoc quality.
In contrast, Al Qaeda prepares its major operations years in advance. If Bin Laden and his associates decided to attack the 2004 Games, the plan has been in preparation longer than have the defenses. The actual method of attack may have been in place for many months. The people who organized the attack may have long since departed Athens, with only a small sleeper cell of those required to actually execute the mission left behind. Indeed, given their use of cellular telephones to trigger the bombs in Madrid, it may not require any Al Qaeda operatives to remain in Athens at all. In short, the decision curve of the attackers has been well inside that of the defenders, and may still be.
If the target for Al Qaeda's next attack is not Athens, the vast manpower and money devoted to Olympic security will appear excessive in hindsight. Sports fans can return home to complain about nothing worse than Athenian traffic and heat. If the contrary is true, the initiative lies entirely with the terrorists. An attack or attacks will probably succeed, at least initially. For a global event like the Olympics, Al Qaeda might have prepared something really horrific, something to demonstrate its continued power to its supporters and to the world - perhaps serial attacks of different types to first cause panic and then exploit the chaos for maximum lethality.