Sochi 2014: Can Russia Secure Olympics Near A Hotbed Of Terrorism?

May 20, 2013 at 3:17 PM ET

In addition to playing host to next year’s Winter Olympics, the sleepy seaside Russian resort town of Sochi has another notable characteristic: Its precarious position beside Chechnya and the equally restive Dagestan, two of the region’s most active terrorist hubs. At just several hours’ drive away from these unstable, insurgent-heavy areas, Sochi is faced with the complex matter of providing sustained security for an international Olympic crowd in a globally televised event lasting nearly three weeks.

Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov tells Vocativ it is impossible to guarantee safety from terrorist attacks during the Olympics in a region such as Sochi, and that even the massively intricate and costly security measures being put in place are inadequate.

“If the games were held somewhere else in Russia,” Soldatov says, “it would be a lot easier logistically to ensure security… In the case of Sochi, they would literally have to build a wall around the city.”

Experts say a shadowy group of insurgents called Caucasus Emirate (see a Vocativ profile of them here) represent the greatest security threat to Sochi. This jihadist umbrella organization has regional subgroups spread throughout the republics of the Russian North Caucasus, and has taken up the cause of expanding the insurgency of Chechen Islamists. The use of female suicide bombers, in particular, has gained the Emirate international notoriety. In 2010, these so-called Black Widows killed 40 people and wounded hundreds in two simultaneous attacks on the Moscow metro.

Several years ago, national security expert Emil Souleimanov explained that Islamist groups in the North Caucasus are very likely to see the Olympics as an opportunity to gain global attention for their cause. A subgroup of the Caucasus Emirate, the Dagestan Vilaiyat, has specifically vowed to attack the Sochi Olympics in the past. In February 2011, another subgroup conducted synchronized attacks on the nearby Mt. Elbrus ski resort, the reserve location for the Olympic skiing events. This operation is thought by some to have been a dry run for an attack on the Olympics.

As with the forthcoming 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, the security measures for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi will be extensive, if not completely unmatched. The city is already subject to intense safety measures such as armed guards at hotels, checkpoints at major intersections, plain-clothed policemen around the city and metal detectors at entrances to Olympic venues and metro transportation hubs. And while traveling to Russia from abroad already requires registering with the Federal Migration Service, in the run-up to the Olympics this Soviet-style registration will likely be extended to all Russian nationals visiting Sochi as well.

The Russian government is expected to introduce additional security procedures on June 1, and will surely roll out other measures as the Olympics draw nearer. Security experts tell Vocativ that key security measures will involve controlling access to venues, threat detection and response preparedness.

In particular, Russian authorities will have to balance the ability of the public to enter the Sochi Olympic Park against strict screening procedures, which would require limiting entrances sharply.

But airport-style security checks can cause a different set of problems: According to Eric McNulty, senior associate at Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, intensive screening may create bottlenecks where many civilians congregate around entrances outside of secured areas. In a 2003 attack, two Black Widows blew themselves up outside of the entrance to a Russian rock concert after realizing they had been spotted by security.

The Nogai Steppe Vilaiyat—the Caucasus Emirate subgroup based in the region around Sochi—exploited one such vulnerability in its attack on Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in 2011. Instead of going through security, the suicide bomber killed nearly 40 people when he blew himself up in the lobby of the airport prior to being screened.

Considering the Caucasus Emirate’s fondness for car bombs, access to vehicles is also likely to be heavily regulated. McNulty adds that cities often augment the threat detection that a heavy police presence provides by using networks of cameras and bomb-sniffing dogs. He says that the Russians may require a mobile phone number when buying spectator tickets at the Olympics, which would allow authorities to send out text messages to attendees en masse, in case of an emergency situation.

But the Caucasus Emirate is a group that has already demonstrated a pattern of ruthlessly creative attacks on civilians. Recently, it conducted suicide operations using ethnic Russian converts from Stavropol, a region very close to Sochi. Ethnic Russian terrorists would presumably have an easier time avoiding detection in Sochi as well.

Yegor Engelhart, an expert on political Islam, tells Vocativ, “It is obvious that the authorities are doing the most that they can to prevent any possible jihadist activity from the North Caucasus…. But it is questionable whether they will be able to guarantee safety. This is a location where these underground movements feel most comfortable.”