Sochi has (almost) nothing to fear but fear itself
January 22nd, 2014
09:22 AM ET

Sochi has (almost) nothing to fear but fear itself

By Mark Galeotti, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Mark Galeotti is professor of global affairs at New York University’s SCPS Center for Global Affairs. You can follow him @MarkGaleotti or on his blog, ‘In Moscow’s Shadows.’ The views expressed are his own.

News potential female terrorists – so-called “black widows” – may be loose inside or around the Sochi Winter Olympics security zone has inevitably stirred up fresh concerns about the Games. Athletes and prospective visitors are wondering if they will be safe. The United States is preparing plans in case its citizens need to be evacuated. The more the conversation about Sochi is about the threat, though, the more the terrorists have won – and a cheap victory at that.

The Games have become a symbolic test for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and what matters to Putin gets top priority. The security effort is unprecedented. There will be up to 40,000 police and security officers there, including Interior Ministry troops, and an anti-terrorist commando force: that’s the equivalent of one for every nine inhabitants of the town of Sochi, and more than were on duty at peak times during the much larger London Olympics in 2012. There will also be regular soldiers on duty, including divers will also be divers watching the Black Sea coast and surface-to-air missile batteries that could claw a 747 out of the skies. And those skies will also be patrolled by drones, while elite Spetsnaz commandos scour the surrounding mountains, just in case terrorists try to get into the zone cross-country.

Of course, the presence of foreigners and the international media, as well as the importance Putin has invested in the Games, mean they are a target of choice for the assorted radicals and jihadists of the North Caucasus. Theirs is not a unified, disciplined rebel army, more a collection of loosely-affiliated small-scale and local groups called jamaats. For that reason it is hard to be certain exactly what might be being planned, but Chechen rebel commander Doku Umarov – whom some reports say has since been killed – called for “maximum effort” to be spent disrupting these “Satanic Games” back in June.

Sochi, though, is a pretty hard target. Of course, no security can ever be perfect, and Russian security has in the past been shown to be especially erratic. Unprofessionalism, a lack of initiative and simple corruption can all put holes into any “ring of steel.” Moscow does seem to be aware of this, though, and is doing what it can to compensate. Checks are often automated and multiple, for example, and the sheer number of officers on the ground does create redundancies and controls.

Even the news about one of the potential terrorists at large in Sochi has a silver lining. She appears to have been a person of interest to the Russian Federal Security Service, under some degree of surveillance, who then dropped off their radar. This may or may not mean anything, and there is actually no evidence so far that she is in Sochi or even headed there, despite reports that she may have been spotted in the area. In those circumstances, it is right and proper that the Russians be cautious and work on the assumption that she might. In this respect, it is encouraging that the Russian authorities are able to identify potential attackers and are willing to do something about it, and to do so openly. (Unlike the Soviets, who hushed up any potential threats to the 1980 Moscow Olympics.)

Overall, then, although making predictions is always a risky business, the Winter Games venue is likely to be as secure as possible given the presence of an active and murderous jihadist insurgency just a few hundred miles away.

Still, if the terrorists can’t hit Sochi itself, they can do the next best thing. That is to create a climate of fear around the event. The recent suicide bombs in Volgograd and Pyatigorsk, for example, posed no direct threat to the Games. Volgograd is over 400 miles from Sochi; it would have been like trying to disrupt a presidential inauguration in Washington by hitting Cincinnati. But they certainly generated headlines and international concern and that, for the terrorists, is the point.

They will, of course, hope to be able to strike directly at Sochi: even a suicide attack triggered at a checkpoint, while actually showing the effectiveness of the security cordon, will be seen as an “attack on Sochi.” But if they cannot do that, then they can at least try to control the conversation, with a steady stream of attacks in the Russian south, hair-raising threats – on Monday they released a video promising “a gift” in store for spectators visiting Sochi – and propaganda stunts. Indeed, that “black widow” may have simply gone to ground precisely to trigger the newsworthy police hunt for her.

There may be more attacks in southern Russia over the next few weeks. Nonetheless, the Games are likely to be safe from terrorism, if not from shoddy construction, heavy-handed policing and scalping prices. The challenge is for Moscow to hold back from the kind of heavy-handed over-reaction that tends to alienate non-Russian communities in the south and push more into the arms of the jihadists, and for the rest of the world to take the threat seriously, but not more seriously than it deserves.

In the modern 24/7 media age, after all, the terrorists’ opportunities to spread fear and shape public perceptions are greater than ever.

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Topics: Russia • Sports • Terrorism

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. JAL

    The Black Widow thing seems like it is trying to resonate. If the Black Widow (in general) is a negative solution, what is the positive solution? And can this positive solution show up on time or at least leave a voice mail?

    January 22, 2014 at 10:31 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      The "Black widow" is in fact a white Caucasian female. She might be the widow of a killed terrorist. But there are other women, who vow to avenge the death of their fathers and brothers. Indeed, the Islamists in Caucasus were hardly known to the wider world, except until the Boston bombing last year. Now Sochi would be another opportunity for them to air their grievances.

      January 23, 2014 at 11:00 am |
      • wakeupAmerica

        Thank you for clarifying the matter in "black and white" for all of us to grasp the truth of the matter! The news nowadays is so "colored", one can only hope things could be more "transparent".......... 🙂

        January 24, 2014 at 1:41 am |
  2. joe anon 1

    said terrorists are american sponsored via saudi arabia/bandar.

    January 22, 2014 at 1:06 pm |
    • mike

      Yeah because thats what America really wants, terrorists and suicide bombers to target its athletes and citizens.

      January 23, 2014 at 1:07 am |
    • lewtwo

      Nope - the Saudis are very capable of doing that by themselves. Wahhabi Islam is the threat.

      January 23, 2014 at 4:27 am |
  3. Game Plan of Putin

    Putin is seeking attention.

    January 22, 2014 at 3:36 pm |
  4. Patrick

    I think they will be ok if they are careful. We need to boy-cott the 2020 Olympics though, because of Taiji and whale hunting.

    January 22, 2014 at 3:40 pm |
  5. RobertM

    How can it possibly be safe? You can have millions of emergency and security personnel around to respond but that does nothing to stop someone with a gun in hand or bomb strapped to their chest.

    January 22, 2014 at 5:26 pm |
  6. Russ

    Denial,denial,denial on Marx' part. Any strike on the South Russian region will inflict damage. The probability that something will happen is,unfortunately,high.

    January 22, 2014 at 5:47 pm |
  7. chrissy

    I agree @ Robert! I dont think thats anyplace i would wanta be to begin with much less when there are hundreds of thousands of people there! Its just asking for trouble, especially with recent events in Russia!

    January 22, 2014 at 9:13 pm |
  8. lewtwo

    It is a numbers game. They only need ONE suicide bomber to get through the ultra security and they probably have dozens of volunteers anxious to meet Allah.

    January 23, 2014 at 4:19 am |
  9. banasy©

    It is a disgraceful type of people that are capable of damaging the Olympics and taking away human life just to make a political point.

    January 23, 2014 at 8:38 am |
    • wakeupAmerica

      And when America dropped over 2 million bombs on Vietnam, killing 1.7 million Vietnamese (1964-1975), to make the failed political point that communism was not welcome in South Vietnam, that was perfectly ok huh?????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      January 23, 2014 at 10:30 am |
  10. Rick McDaniel

    The first thing we have to face, is there is no safe place, anywhere in the world. That is the true fact.

    Sochi has a level of risk, just like every other place. The only difference, is it is a slightly elevated level of risk, due to Islamic terrorists that are attacking the Russian people, in various parts of Russia, and its former allied areas, especially Chechnya.

    Islam puts people at risk, everywhere on this planet. Literally.

    January 24, 2014 at 11:26 am |
  11. Rudy Tagala

    The risk is there. Difficulty is how to screen each individual in the the projected audience on time – the more of them the better for the Sochi Olympics success measurement but inveresely proportional to security concerns.

    January 25, 2014 at 2:28 am |

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