Threat of attacks in Sochi seem inevitable if history is an indicator

Feb. 7, 2014
Security experts say it is not a matter of if, but when to expect a terrorist incident

While the 100th Olympic Games began Thursday with a few preliminary events, the “official” start is Friday as Russia welcomes the world to Sochi with the elaborate opening ceremonies. For the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Russian government, the hopes are that as the game progress attention will be centered on the medal counts and not body counts.

It’s not like there have not already been considerable distractions leading up to the Games. President Vladimir Putin sparked Western criticism with Russia's law banning gay "propaganda", which was followed in late December by a pair of suicide bombing that killed 34 people in Volgograd, only 400 miles from Sochi. Terror threats by Islamic insurgents from the North Caucasus region of Russia have had the IOC on edge since Sochi was awarded the Games, so hearing security experts fear the worst has done little to ease concerns.

Security has been top of mind since the first venue was planned. Russia has already spent more than $51 billion to rebuild Sochi -- a coastal city of more than 350,000 that was once a jewel on the Black Sea but has fallen on hard times -- into a year-round tourist spot and winter sports resort. President Putin has justified the enormous Olympic expenditure by characterizing them as long-term investments in roads, railways, hotels and other infrastructure.

Although the Russian Olympic Committee and the IOC are not releasing the cost of securing the Sochi venues, most experts are saying the security budget will overshadow all previous Games, approaching more than $7 billion. The Russian governments will be deploying more than 50,000 military and special police and they have constructed a so called “Ring of Steel” that surrounds a 60-mile long and 25-mile wide perimeter complete with advanced video surveillance, intrusion detection technology and even drones.

For Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program and noted expert on the history, strategy, and organizational structure of various world jihadist groups, the Sochi Olympics is by far the most dangerous in the Games’ history.

“These are the Security Games. One of their big priorities is to keep the Games safe. Security has been driven to the fore,” says Garenstein-Ross “We know there are about 40,000 security personnel that Russia has moved to the area and probably more than that. Metal detector, bomb sniffing dogs -- they have taken every physical security precaution. In reality Putin has played down the cost of the Games so far. Now that Russian economy is staggering a little, they want to make it seem to the Russian people that they are getting all this world-wide prestige and infrastructure improvement at a very reasonable price tag.”

While the threat of terrorism in Sochi is more pronounced and blatant than in past Games, the Olympics have served as a high-profile target for terrorists for decades. At the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed by a Palestinian terrorist group. The 1996 Atlanta Summer Games saw domestic terrorism when Eric Rudolph detonated a bomb at Centennial Olympic Park that killed two people and injured more than 100. The subsequent investigation turned into a media circus that falsely accused a local security guard working in the park before settling into a massive national manhunt for Rudolph that lasted years. He is currently serving life in prison.

As international security expert Ariel Cohen points out, the one advantage the Russians have is they are expecting an attack -- unlike previous Games.

“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.”

About the Author

Steve Lasky | Editorial Director, Editor-in-Chief/Security Technology Executive

Steve Lasky is a 34-year veteran of the security industry and an award-winning journalist. He is the editorial director of the Endeavor Business Media Security Group, which includes the magazine's Security Technology Executive, Security Business, and Locksmith Ledger International, and the top-rated website He is also the host of the SecurityDNA podcast series.Steve can be reached at [email protected]