Security experts: Olympics-related terrorist threat 'is very real'

William Douglas,Barbara Barrett

Analysts who are following security relations with Russia ahead of next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi said Tuesday that terrorism has potential to interrupt the games, even if an attack never happens at the games themselves.

“The terrorist threat is very real,” said Andrew C. Kuchins, director and senior fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Sochi is the holy grail, I would think, for terrorists.”

Fears about terrorism, concerns about corruption, worries about the impact of recently passed Russian anti-gay laws, and a $50 billion tab are poised to cast a pall on the Winter Games and cause problems for Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Putin made it his personal mission to bring the Winter Games to the subtropical city on the Black Sea. Putin and Russian officials have vowed to crush any terrorist efforts. But some security experts aren’t sure whether Russia’s security and intelligence efforts are geared toward handling a large-scale event like the Olympics.

In a press briefing Tuesday morning, Kuchins and other CSIS experts said even attacks outside Sochi but in the surrounding region could cause significant disruption. “(Terrorists) need only create a sense of terror .... to create a sense of instability,” said Juan C. Zarate, senior adviser of CSIS’ Transnational Threats Project and Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program.

Among the CSIS experts’ other observations:

Many fighters from the northern Caucasus region of Russia have gone to fight alongside the insurgency in Syria. There, they have been trained in fighting techniques and been further indoctrinated by global jihadi thought. “The flow in and out of Syria amplifies the threat,” Zarate said.

Ideally, the United States would have much of its security cleared into Olympic venues in a host country. Zarate said he suspects the U.S. government isn’t getting as many clearances as it would like. “I think the opposite is happening,” he said, adding later: “I’d venture to say we’re doing the best with what we can on the ground.”

Russia and the United States, whose relationship has deteriorated significantly since Russia’s help after 9/11, have not communicated well on intelligence. Kutchins pointed to the Tsarnaev brothers, accused of the attacks at the Boston Marathon in April, as an example. The oldest brother had traveled to Russia, but Kutchins said, it’s unclear how closely he was tracked by Russian authorities.

Russia’s security aparatus is designed to insulate the regime as its top priority, not necessarily protect the public, said Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program at CSIS. One of the challenges, he said, will be for security forces to make that pivot.

Corruption could be a worrisome factor. “It only takes one guard to look the other way and accept a bribe of one form or another to have a very successful attack pulled off,” Mankoff said.

Concern about terrorist attacks escalated after an Islamic group in Russia’s North Caucasus claimed credit Sunday for two deadly suicide bombings in the southern city of Volgograd last month and for posting a video threatening to strike the Winter Games.

In the video posted on its website Sunday, the group Vilayat Dagestan took responsibility for the Volgograd explosions and warned Putin that, “if you hold these Olympics, we will give you a present for the innocent Muslim blood being spilled around the world: In Afghanistan, in Somalia, in Syria.”

Vilayat Dagestan is part of the so-called Caucasus Emirate, a coalition seeking an independent Islamic state in the North Caucasus, which is just east of Russia.

Monday, Russian authorities were looking for a “black widow,” a woman believed to be a member of a North Caucasus militant group, who may currently be in Sochi.

By William Douglas and Barbara Barrett
McClatchy Washington Bureau