WASHINGTON – A panel of security and terrorism experts urged heightened safeguards against threats at the 2014 Sochi Olympics during a news briefing at the Center for Strategic & International Studies Tuesday.
Caucasus separatist fighters in the Chechen region pose the greatest danger to the games, said former Deputy National Security Adviser Juan Zarate.
These include Vilayat Dagestan, the separatist Islamist group that recently claimed credit for the December Volgograd bombings that claimed 32 lives, and “black widow” suicide bombers — Islamist women whose husbands have been killed.
With the safety of international athletes, sponsors and citizens at risk, Russia’s responsibility to demonstrate a “perception of security” is high, Zarate said.
“You have a real terrorist threat here,” Zarate said. “The Russians have to not only secure the sites. They’re going to have to disrupt terrorist activities abroad to show that they’re doing something.”
This year’s Winter Olympics will be staged closer to a conflict zone than any previous games and represent an unusual personal investment for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Andrew Kuchins, director of the think tank’s Russia & Eurasia Program. Putin’s leadership during the lead up to the games has been under scrutiny from the international community, Kuchins said.
Putin has assured the international community he will be able to maintain security in the region, which was chosen for its alpine slopes.
“Sochi is the Holy Grail for an Islamist jihadist terrorist individual or group to go after,” said Kuchins, a published expert on Russian foreign and domestic policies. “In a way we have the ultimate showdown [because] Putin’s got a lot riding on it — this is a very juicy target.”
The legitimacy of the security around Sochi was questioned after an identified black widow allegedly entered the host city despite identifiable characteristics, including a 4-inch scar on her cheek and a disabled arm. The improbability of such a security breach casts doubt on whether Monday’s militant Islamist video threats were authentic, said Kuchins.
“Sochi is supposedly under lockdown,” he said. “How she got past security makes me wonder, could this really be true? It doesn’t give one great confidence.”
Still, preventative security measures — bolstered by doubt surrounding Chechen nationalist leader Doku Umarov’s alleged death — remain crucial.
“Is he dead? I’m kind of skeptical about that,” Kuchins said, referencing numerous reports of the jihadist leader’s death. Umarov lifted a punitive ban on civilian attacks in July and declared plans to disrupt the Olympic Games, Kuchins said.
“One would think if he had been taken out by the FSB, Russian authorities would want to show the video of his dead body to bring a greater sense of calm about the games,” Kuchins said.
Security concerns stretch outside of Sochi, too.
“You don’t have to hit Sochi to spoil the games,” he said. “A series of Volgograd caliber attacks would virtually terrorize all of Russia and spoil the games.”
In order to secure the games, the Russian Federal Security Service and American organizations need to secure arenas, as well as the areas where athletes are living and transportation to and from the Olympic city, Kuchins said.
When asked to comment on security at the games, Sandrine Tonge, a spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee, released an official statement from the IOC:
“At the Olympic Games, security is the responsibility of the local authorities, and we have no doubt that the Russian authorities will be up to the task,” she wrote.
Russia has become more concerned with perceptions of security and more reluctant to collaborate with the U.S. on the ground as the games draw closer, Zarate said. U.S. security organizations have therefore started to develop contingency plans for worst-case scenarios, such as evacuating injured athletes.
“The U.S. is trying to take into account and vector the fact that we don’t have on the ground cooperation and resources as we have in the past,” he said.