Safe in Sochi? Local expert says probably, but …

By Mark Guydish mguydish@timesleader.com

February 2, 2014

DALLAS TWP. — Know someone heading to the upcoming winter Olympics? Concerned about the safety of American athletes amid talk of “black widow bombers,” U.S. Navy ships prowling the Black Sea, and a man some call Russia’s “Osama Bin Laden” threatening to disrupt the games by spilling blood?

Ever since the “Munich Massacre” of the 1972 Olympics — 11 members of the Israeli team and one German police officer taken hostage and killed — it’s been rare to talk “Olympics” without at least thinking “terrorists.”

But the fear factor has amped up as this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, approach. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell called these the “most dangerous Olympics” in his lifetime. BBC reported British officials have said an attempted terrorist attack is “very likely to occur.”

Is all the concern justified? Misericordia University history and government assistant professor Christopher Stevens said the dynamics and history of the nations involved — Russia and Chechnya — mean both terrorists and those trying to stop them will go to great lengths to succeed.

“This region has a warrior culture,” Stevens, who has spent time in neighboring countries, said. “It has been nursed and incubated through over a century of resistance to Russian rule, which is why these (terrorists) pop up.”

A matter of geography

Fears are high in large part because of the venue location, Stevens said. Sochi is a Black Sea resort west of the long-troubled northern Caucus mountains, where a man named Doku Umarov is believed to be hiding as he runs a terrorist operation intent on creating an Islamist “caliphate.”

The president of Chechnya recently claimed Umarov was killed, but Stevens points out that no evidence has been provided.

Umarov’s operations potentially benefit and are hampered by the size of his organization. “You are dealing with a group of people who are very small in number,” Stevens said. “Umarov and the idea of a caliphate are not something that is going to be supported by the majority of the people in the caucuses, in regions like Dagestan or Chechnya.”

While the region has a long history of fighting for independence from Russia, Umarov’s group “has gone beyond just resisting Russian rule and is sort of painting themselves along the lines of an international Jihad, like an al Qaida,” Stevens said, referring to the terrorist group most famous for it’s leader Osama Bin Laden, killed by American Navy Seals, and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Some have called Umarov Russia’s Osama Bin Laden.

“On the one hand, they are small in number and perhaps less capable of big attacks,” Stevens said. “On the other hand, they are possibly able to move around more easily because they don’t have the big base camps that al Qaida had.”

The people in the region are not strict Muslims, Stevens said. “Islam is part of their identity, but it’s not their overall identity.” Many in the area have learned to live with Russian rule and a good bit of autonomy provided to Chechnya. Leaders in the region tend to look to Moscow to help fight the terrorists, Stevens added.

Still, a recent terrorist attack in Volgograd, a major rail hub about than 400 miles miles northwest of Sochi, helped make threats to attack the Olympics more credible, Stevens said.

Cultural differences

Umarov may have proven resilient and determined, but Stevens points out that, in trying to attack the Olympics, he’s attacking Russia and it’s president, Vladimir Putin. “One of Russia’s strengths is its tradition as a police state. Putin is not going to have inter-agency problems in fighting this,” Stevens said.

So it’s no surprise that security at Sochi has mushroomed with the threats. “It has ballooned from 40,000 security personnel to about 100,000 by some reports,” Stevens said, “and it’s all under the Federal Security Bureau, which in Russia is like the FBI and CIA combined.

“They will have a huge network,” Stevens said. “Can they prevent a single bomber from setting something off? Who knows.”

Terrorists from the Caucuses face another problem: their appearances. “People from central Asia and the caucus region tend to be darker skinned, and don’t look Russian,” Stevens said, and “Russia has a xenophobic tradition.” It’s people are used to noticing, and reporting, outsiders.

“It’s going to be hard for them to move around,” Stevens said, citing his own experience when he was stopped in neighboring Ukraine while traveling with two people from Turkey. “They didn’t stop us because of me; they wanted to know what the Turks were doing there.”

But the Chechnyan terrorists “have no qualms using women in attacks, who might be less obvious,” Stevens said. In fact, wives of men killed in Russian counter-terrorism operations who take up the cause have earned a special nickname — “black widows.”

The terrorists could be even more effective, Stevens said, “if they recruit someone else who easily fits in.”

The risk will be relatively low in Sochi itself, and potentially greatest in the gap between the main Olympic venue and the ski venue 25 miles away.

“This is not a highly developed country like the United States,” Stevens said. “People can move around the forest area and approach along the route and place their bomb.”

Putin’s pride

One reason Russia has poured so much into these Olympics, Stevens said, is Putin’s own self image. “Putin has had so many successes lately and he doesn’t want to look bad,” Stevens said.

“He’s not as popular as he once was at home, so if something goes terribly wrong the criticism will damage him. There’s a lot riding for him on a safe Olympics.”

But that’s also a motivation for the terrorists, Stevens added. The goal of terrorism is “to prompt overreaction that leads to financial exhaustion and the collapse of a government in the long term.” That’s not likely to happen with Russia, Stevens said, but the terrorists likely believe a successful attack on the Olympics would not only rattle Russia and prompt even more spending on anti-terrorism, but hurt Putin enough to threaten his hold on the government in Moscow.

In the end, safety is a relative term in Sochi, Stevens said. The odds of a successful attack are remote, but the terrorists work in small groups with primitive weapons and those traits may make it easier to slip through the massive security web.

“You could tell people the probability of drowning in a bathtub is greater than dying at the hands of terrorists,” he said. “That will comfort some people. Others are not going to be comforted.”