The Russians are quite capable of securing the Sochi Olympic Games despite the sturm und drang, several European and American security experts said this week.
Every couple of years, the terrorism fear builds again. A sporting attraction with an international audience looms – an Olympics, a World Cup, a Super Bowl – and those who devote their time to making sense of the irrational world of terror can’t help but make the connection.
International event, international television audience, international press coverage: It all adds up to an ideal setting for an international terror attack. International terrorists seek to make statements on a global stage, and there are no bigger stages.
The concerns are building again as the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, approach. But this time the fears – from the White House, the military, security experts – see a unique confluence of dangers.
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Sochi is a Russian resort city, about the size of Wichita, Kan., but tucked between the stunning Black Sea coast and the breathtaking Caucasus Mountains. It’s also less than a day’s drive from Chechnya, a piece of Russia that’s been fighting not to be considered a piece of Russia for centuries.
The violence in Chechnya today is not as intense as it was during the early 1990s, when the republic was fighting for independence. There was a break in the fighting in the mid-1990s. Not long after it restarted in 1999, Russian President Vladimir Putin tied it to the international war on terror, noting that the new Chechen fighters were associated with radical Islam.
The Chechen threat is real. The international radical fighters who have tied themselves to al Qaida in some form or another in Syria often are led by Chechens.
But some who study terror also note that the threat is well-known to the Russian forces in charge of security at these games.
“After all, this is where the Russians live,” said Thomas Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. “And this is what they live with.”
He noted that terror attacks thrive on soft targets, and the sprawling nature of an Olympics provides many at least near the venue. Beyond that, even an attack in far-away Moscow during the games in Sochi would generate global news reports. Still, terror groups look to use high-profile attacks to bring in money and support, he noted.
“Attacking an Olympics is never a good idea,” he said. “You don’t look sympathetic, to anyone.”
And, he said, Russian security “does things that would make the average American very uncomfortable. I don’t know if that’s a positive or a negative regarding the security of these games.”
But the experience and perceived competence of Russian security has meant that the terror fears have been greater from the United States than Europe. The American call has been to be more deeply involved in security, with the White House noting a recent uptick in threats.
The European view is uncertain on that point.
Patrick Keller, a security policy expert at Berlin’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a policy think tank, said in an email that while “there is no complete security, and the threat may be a bit higher because of Russia’s domestic and near-abroad policies, but any real U.S. involvement is hardly conceivable.”
Keller said an American security presence “wouldn’t improve much.” But he also added that the “fear of terror in Europe, generally, is lower than it is in the United States.”
Peter Knoope, director of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, Netherlands, said that doesn’t mean Europeans don’t see an exceptional threat in games staged on the edge of a powder keg. Chechens with vast military experience set on embarrassing Putin should not be taken lightly.
“But remember that most terror threats that are stopped are stopped because everyday citizens, neighbors, see something they don’t like and raise these issues with their local security officials, usually local police,” Knoope said. “It’s not high-tech spying that stops terror attacks. In 80 percent of cases it’s simply neighbors thinking something just isn’t right. Only Russian security could possibly be in a position to take advantage of that.”
Fred Burton, the vice president of intelligence for Stratfor, a global intelligence company based in Austin, Texas, is a former counterterrorism agent with the U.S. State Department and worked on protective intelligence and counterterrorism for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
That Olympics was attacked by domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph, whose pipe bomb resulted in two deaths and more than 100 injuries.
Burton said his experience tells him the concerns about cooperation between security forces reported in recent days are overstated. Security forces around the globe have been focused on making these games safe for months, and what information there was to share has been shared.
“In the end, security is a Russian responsibility,” Burton said.
But he called Russian security “robust” and added, “I think the Russians are more than capable of securing the environment in and around Sochi.”