In February, all eyes will be on Sochi, Russia, where athletes from around the globe will compete in the XXII Olympic Winter Games. But all focus won’t be on championing the Olympic spirit.
With ongoing conflicts and terrorist threats in the region, there are growing security concerns, prompting the U.S. Department of State to issue a travel alert to U.S. citizens.
So just what are these threats, what measures are being taken to minimize them, and what can U.S. citizens do to reduce their risks?
According to Wojtek Wolfe, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers–Camden, Russia’s North Caucasus is a volatile region and the past decade has seen a rise in radical Islamic insurgency. However, Russia's counterinsurgency efforts have been effective in fighting against terrorist threats emanating from the region.
“Many of the active terrorist groups have come out of the ashes of the war in Chechnya,” says Wolfe, citing a list of groups that includes Doku Umarov’s Caucasian Emirate.
“Doku Umarov had previously received a significant amount of notoriety but recent reports suggest that he's lost significant resources and may simply be advocating lone-wolf attacks,” says Wolfe, author of Winning the War of Words: Selling the War on Terror from Afghanistan to Iraq and an expert in national security and U.S. foreign policy.
Wolfe adds that global terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and its various derivatives, as well as global political groups connected to terrorist activities, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, may be seeking to gain notoriety and exposure by executing an attack at the Olympics.
In a broader, political context, he notes, many radical Islamic terrorist groups would like to attack Russia because of its support of Syria's fallen Assad regime.
“For these and many other reasons, the Russian security apparatus has been and will be on high alert, not only because of the threat of terrorist attack but also because Russia itself has a lot of political capital at stake in keeping the Winter Olympics free from violence,” he says.
Wolfe explains that Russia's Federal Security Bureau, or FSB, has approximately 40,000 security personnel employed at the site. A Russian military group, named Operations Group Sochi, will secure the mountainous region from Sochi to Mineralnye Vody, using approximately 10,000 troops. Russia's 58th Army will secure the southern border with Georgia. In addition, Russia has implemented travel and transport restrictions, created enhanced security zones, and implemented near-complete electronic surveillance, all in an effort to limit the terrorists’ physical access to the area.
“It is likely that this is a beta test for surveillance expansion throughout the country,” says Wolfe. “Russia's President Vladimir Putin stands to lose mass credibility, both domestically and internationally, if his government fails to prevent terrorist attacks at the Olympics. In the same token, if his security apparatus succeeds it will provide justification for expansion of the surveillance state on top of an already poor human rights record.”
Wolfe cautions that U.S. citizens attending the games should practice the same safety measures recommended by the State Department when traveling in any at-risk area. This includes practicing situational awareness, being aware of one's immediate surroundings, knowing one’s travel routes, being familiar with layout of the city, and having an ability to communicate with the police or emergency personnel when necessary.
“Olympics attendees are more likely to be victims of pickpockets and common street crime,” says Wolfe. “Nonetheless, holding the Olympics in a terrorist-infested area increases both the chances of an attack and the government’s efforts to prevent such an attack.”
According to Wolfe, preventing a terrorist attack is one of the few issues on which the Russian and U.S. governments have been able to agree. As has been widely reported, FBI Director James Comey recently announced that he would dispatch FBI agents to Russia to work with Russian intelligence services.
“Therefore, in this limited period of time, security cooperation between the two governments will be advantageous in preventing an attack and/or limiting the effects of an attack,” he says. “It is unclear at this point what the level of cooperation between the FSB and the FBI is expected to be.”
Wolfe adds that large-scale terrorist attacks are extremely difficult to execute and lone-wolf attacks are even more rarely successful beyond their brief media impact.
“I usually do not expect such tragic events to come to fruition, especially when security organizations are able to focus on a specific period of time and geographic area,” he says. “However, the location of the Olympic events and their proximity to active terrorist organizations certainly raises the possibility of an attempted attack.”