With about 100,000 police, security agents and army troops flooding Sochi, Russia has pledged to ensure “the safest Olympics in history.” But terror fears fueled by recent suicide bombings have left athletes, spectators and officials worldwide jittery about potential threats.
Security experts warn that Islamic militants in the Caucasus, who have threatened to derail the Winter Games that run Feb. 7-23, could achieve their goal by choosing soft targets away from the Olympic sites or even outside Sochi. Some have raised the possibility that jihadists could have infiltrated Sochi long before security was tightened and have noted the vulnerability of the city’s transport systems.
“The most daunting threat is suicide bombers,” said Grigory Shvedov, chief editor of the Caucasian Knot, an online news portal focusing on the Caucasus.
He said 124 suicide attackers have struck Russia over the past 13 years.
Air defense missiles, drones, high-speed patrol boats and sophisticated sonars capable of spotting submarines — the array of high-tech gear deployed makes Sochi look like it’s preparing for an enemy invasion from both air and sea. Observers question, however, to what extent the Russian security agencies are prepared to respond to the most likely threat — suicide bombers with primitive explosives strapped to their bodies.
The back-to-back December suicide bombings of a railway station and a bus in Volgograd, about 400 miles east of Sochi, killed 34 people and demonstrated the militants’ ability to strike with shocking ease. A jihadist group in Dagestan, the epicenter of the Islamic rebellion against Russia that has engulfed the Caucasus, claimed responsibility for the Volgograd bombings and has threatened to strike Sochi. Dagestan is only a few hundred miles from Sochi.
Police in Sochi issued leaflets recently warning about three potential suicide bombers, one of whom, a 22-year-old widow of an Islamic militant, was said to be at large in the city. The notices have raised questions about efficiency of the rigid security measures in Sochi, which have involved the expulsion of thousands of migrant workers and blanket police checks of city residents.
Andrei Soldatov, an independent Moscow-based security analyst, described the police raids as a throwback to Soviet times.
“They follow the Soviet methods while working to ensure security, trying to establish control over activists and dissenters,” he said. “Control is a key word for them, but it’s not synonymous with security.”
Soldatov said jihadists fighting to carve out an independent Islamic state in the Caucasus could have placed sleeper agents in Sochi years ago.
“The probability of that is quite high, they had plenty of time to prepare,” he said.
Shvedov, the Caucasian Knot editor, agrees.
“If they wanted to get explosives in Sochi, they could have done it well before the attacks in Volgograd, when massive construction work was underway and there was little control over people who flowed into the city,” Shvedov said.
To minimize the suicide bombing threat, Olympic organizers introduced blanket screening of all visitors, requiring them to share passport details to get a Winter Games spectator pass. Officials also cut access to vehicles lacking Sochi registration or a special pass, and guards were searching all train commuters. Some security rules were random: while journalists could bring food and drinks on the train, Olympic volunteers could not.
A parking lot outside Sochi airport was emptied in an attempt to minimize the threat from car bombs, forcing visitors to walk a long way to reach cabs or buses.
Shvedov said Sochi’s transport infrastructure remained vulnerable to potential threats. He said there were no fences to protect some sections of the railway track, making it easily accessible, and warned that planes flying low over the sea toward the airport also could be targeted.
The population’s reluctance to cooperate with police could also make identifying threats more difficult, he said.
“People don’t trust security agencies,” Shvedov said. “They are afraid of contacting them, because they understand they could be turned into suspects instead of being praised for their vigilance.”