“The security preparation for the Sochi games is the highest threat level for any Olympics. It’s higher than Munich when the Israeli Olympic team was massacred. The Germans had no prior knowledge. The Russians know there is an ongoing Islamic threat and have taken steps to try and mitigate them,” explains Cohen, who is a Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Unfortunately he contends that this massive deployment of force in Sochi may be playing right into the hands of the terrorists. He thinks there are more than 100,000 Russian secret services personnel and other military, police and para-military focusing their efforts in and around Sochi. He sees this as a potential security weakness.
“The issue is with all eyes trained on Sochi it opens up Moscow, St. Petersburg and other major cities to a higher level of threat. Unfortunately the Russian track record of prevention and credible intelligence in advance of terrorist’s attacks is not spectacular,” continues Cohen, citing examples like the 2002 Dubrovka theater hostage taking and the Breslau school attacks in 2004.
Perhaps the most egregious was the Moscow theater hostage crisis in October of 2002 that saw 40 to 50 armed Chechens take 850 hostages, demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya and an end to the Second Chechen War. After a two-and-a-half day siege, Russian Alpha Group forces pumped an undisclosed chemical agent into the building's ventilation system and raided it. During the raid, all 40 of the attackers were killed by Russian forces, and about 130 hostages died due to adverse reactions to the gas. All but two of the hostages who died during the siege were killed by the toxic substance pumped into the theater to subdue the militants.
Law enforcement agencies around the world condemned the Russian’s heavy-handed tactics and disregard for the hostages. But government officials said they had no choice considering the size of the rebel force. However, physicians in Moscow condemned the refusal to disclose the identity of the gas that prevented them from saving more lives.
“Attacks like these had insufficient intel to prevent them. And then the incidents were compounded by a botched hostage rescue or botched treatment of the wounded afterwards. This doesn’t inspire confidence.”
Garenstein-Ross agrees that there is grave concern that militants from the Caucuses region will strike. He says that during the summer Doku Umarov, described by some as “Russia’s bin Laden” issued a statement that he and his group would attack the Sochi Games.
“Last month you had the twin suicide bombers in Volgograd that recently showed up on a widely distributed martyrdom tape,” adds Garenstein-Ross. “The tape explained that what they had done was only a warning and that the real pain would be felt in Sochi. Militant groups have been carrying out warfare with Russia for more than a decade and have hit some very serious targets with great success. So you have both intent and capabilities already demonstrated by these groups. Looking at other Olympic Games, never have I thought it more likely that a terrorist attack would be attempted.”
Cohen echoes his colleague’s pessimistic outlook.
“This is the most high-profiled target in Russia now since the eyes of the world are focused on Sochi. So the bad guys will try, there is no doubt in my mind about that,” says Cohen. “I anticipate an attack or multiple attacks in Sochi itself or in other Russian cities.”