With the 2014 Olympic Games set to open in Sochi, Russia in two days, questions relating to security, and Russia’s ability to thwart further terrorist attacks, continue to be the main focus as thousands of spectators, media officials and sportsmen begin to descend on the Black Sea region. Dubbed “Putin’s Games,” anticipation surrounding the upcoming Games has shared headline’s with issues of security and the region’s recent history of unrest and the potential of violence targeting spectators and athletes.
A week before the official opening of the Games, United States government officials issued a warning that more terrorist attacks in Russia were “very likely to occur” in the run-up to, or during, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, where eight-eight countries will be competing. An official assessment of the threat has indicated that a Caucasus group, Imarat Kavakaz (IK), poses the main danger to the Games, which will occur on Russia’s Black Sea coast. According to the threat assessment, this Caucasus group has repeatedly expressed a desire to target the Sochi Games. On one such occurrence in July 2013, the group’s fugitive leader, Emir Doku Umarove, called on his followers to do what they could in order to disrupt the games. Islamist militants from Dagestan, and nearby republics of Ingushetia and Chechnya, are also considered by officials in Moscow to be a major threat to the Games.
Recent Terrorist Attacks
Over the past few months, anticipation for the opening of the Games has been overshadowed by continuing questions relating to the safety and security of athletes and spectators in the wake of a number of suicide bombings and attacks.
In December 2013, thirty-four people were killed in two separate explosions that were carried out by suicide bombers in the southern Russian city of Volgograd. The two bombings occurred just months after another suicide bombing targeted a bus in the city and just two days after a car bomb killed three people in the southern city of Pyatigorsk on 27 December. Pyatigorsk lies 270 km (170 miles) east of Sochi.
On 29 December, a suicide bombing took place at the Volgorad-1 station in the city of Volograd, which is situated in the Volograd Oblast of Southern Russia. The blast killed eighteen people and injured forty-four. The attack, which occurred around 12:45 PM Moscow Time, was carried out near the metal detectors by the entrance of the station. A day later, on the morning of 30 December at about 8:30 AM Moscow Time in the Dzerzhinsky district in Volograd, a bombing targeted the No. 1233 trolleybus of route 15A, which connects a suburb to Volograd’s downtown area. The explosion occurred as the trolleybus passed one of the city’s main markets. The attack killed sixteen people and injured forty-one. The two bombings occurred just two months after a suicide bomber set off explosives on a bus. The attack, which occurred in October, killed six people and injured another thirty. It was also the first incident to occur outside the North Caucasus region after Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov called for a resumption of attacks on civilians, and urged militants to target the Sochi Games.
In January 2014, Russian investigators announced that they believed the perpetrators of the two Volograd bombings in late December were two men who arrived in the city from the North Caucasus region. A video posted on 19 January, by a group calling itself Vilayat Dagestan, depicted what appeared to be the bombers donning explosive belts and brandishing weapons. During the video, the two men warned President Vladimir Putin to expect a “present” at the Olympics.
At the end of January 2014, Russia’s National Anti-Terrorist Committee (NAK) announced the identities of two suicide bombers responsible for killing two people in the Volograd. According to the NAK, Asker Samedov and Suleyman Magomedov were members of a group based in the town of Buynaksk, officials further noted that two men suspected of helping the terrorists were arrested in Dagestan.
Despite the arrests, threats of further attacks have continued and Russian police announced in late January that they were hunting for other suspects, including a woman whom they fear may be planning to carry out a suicide bomb attack during the Games. Police officials in Sochi put up wanted posters in hostels around the town. The woman, 23-year-old Ruzana Ibragimova, from Dagestan in the North Caucasus region, is believed to be the widow of an Islamist militant. Officials in Russia believe that despite tight security, she entered Sochi earlier this month. Other police posters have indicated that at least two other potential female suicide bombers are also at large.
Several national Olympic associations have also reported receiving emails threatening athletes with attacks. A statement by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) indicated that the email appeared to be “a random message from a member of the public,” adding that it posed no threat. Officials at the British Olympic Association indicated that they “receive correspondence of every type and it is not uncommon to come across something like this that lacks credibility. While the IOC and national bodies, have widely dismissed such emails, deeming them as not credible, the threat of an attack during the Games remains real.
Since the December bombings, officials in Russia launched a massive security operation to provide security for the Winter Olympic Games. Despite growing international concerns and scrutiny of Russia’s ability to thwart such attacks, officials in Russia have ensured those travelling to Sochi, that security is their upmost priority, as the country will host the largest event since the fall of the Soviet Union.
After the deadly suicide bombings in Volograd, Russia launched one of the largest security operations in Olympic history. More than 30,000 police and interior ministry troops have been deployed, while access to Sochi and the Olympic area has been limited. According to Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov, “starting 7 January, all divisions responsible for ensuring the guests’ security at the Games are being put on combat alert,” adding that “every facility will be put under protection and a space-based monitoring system will be launched.”
Russian officials have established two security zones to protect the Games. A “controlled zone,” located near the Olympic venues, will limit access to people with tickets and proof of identity, while another “forbidden zone” will be in place in large areas around Sochi. Vehicles not registered locally, and which do not have special accreditation, will be banned from the city. The sale of firearms, explosives and ammunition will also be prohibited. Airport-style security is in force for commuters using local trains. Hundreds of volunteers will also body-search all passengers at each station. Two US warships will be on standby in the Black Sea when the Games begin on 7 February. Washington has also offered to supply Russia with hi-tech equipment in order to help detect improvised explosives.
Despite this, security concerns remains. On Wednesday, Australian Olympic team chef de mission Ian Chesterman announced that team members were banned from travelling into Sochi city as a security precaution. A statement issued by Australian Olympic team officials indicated that athletes will be limited to locations within the security perimeters of the Olympic Park and sporting complexes within the mountain zone. In response, IOC spokesman Mark Adams stated that while the recommendation to avoid Sochi city had not come from the IOC, “we believe that security is being handled very well.”
With the Winter Olympics now being a prime target for terror attacks, Moscow has had no choice but to ensure the maximum possible security in Sochi. However the suicide bombings in Volograd have demonstrated that Russia’s security problem extends beyond the Black Sea region, and will likely continue after the conclusion of the Games on 23 February. The recent terror attacks have demonstrated that terror groups can strike anywhere. However while it is difficult to secure an Olympic city, it is almost impossible to secure the whole country. And while the eyes of the world will focus on Sochi for the next few weeks, and will likely scrutinize what are set to be the most expensive Olympic Games, once the Olympic flame is extinguished, officials and authorities in Russia will have to turn their focus onto the North Caucasus region and the area’s history of instability.