Bombings Raise Terrorism Fears in Russia Ahead of Winter Olympics

Bombings Raise Terrorism Fears in Russia Ahead of Winter Olympics

On December 29th, Islamist terrorists turned the Russian city of Volgograd, just 430 miles from venues of the Sochi Winter Olympics scheduled to open on February 7th, into a slaughterhouse in their efforts to humiliate Russia’s attempts to demonstrate the country’s stability. 

A male suicide bomber blew up a trolleybus killing 14 people; just hours later a female suicide bomber blew up the city’s train station and killed at least 17. The attacks also followed an October female suicide attack on a city bus that left six dead. President Putin’s hopes to use the Olympics to showcase the strength of the revived Russian security apparatus are fading fast. With huge manpower concentrated on athlete and spectator safety at the Sochi Olympics, major Russian cities have become more vulnerable to militancy, terrorism, and organized crime.

Russia has been fighting separatist forces in the Caucasus region for centuries. Russia trumpeted its recent success inflicting heavy counterinsurgency blows to militant groups, including the Caucasus Emirate that waged the First and Second Chechen Wars. But the militants are still able to regularly attack security forces and police with targeted assassinations and suicide bombings in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. More than 1,500 violent events have occurred in the Caucasus region since January 2010, with a majority occurring within 500 miles of the Olympic venues targeting soft targets like mosques, shopping malls, and transportation hubs.

Russian security forces have instituted an intense multilayered defense system throughout Sochi. As the successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB, since 2010 the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) has been in control of guaranteeing a 200 mile safety zone around the Olympics. According to Stratfor Global Intelligence:

The FSB will lead close to 100,000 security personnel in securing the games and Sochi overall. Other elements involved in Olympic security operations will be in place:

  • More than 40,000 police are expected to be on duty during the games and will be trained to converse with spectators in three languages other than Russian (English, French and German). They will also have a 24-hour hotline available for assistance.
  • Roughly 30,000 members of the armed forces will deploy to the Sochi area.
  • A Russian military group dubbed “Operations Group Sochi” is expected to supervise and secure the mountainous belt from Sochi to the city of Mineralnye Vody near the Olympic Mountain Cluster using roughly 10,000 troops.
  • Russia’s 58th Army will be responsible for securing and supervising the southern border with Georgia.
  • High tech surveillance for the games will include drones, reconnaissance robots, sonar systems and high-speed patrol boats.
  • A computer system called Sorm will be upgraded and operational to monitor all Internet and communication traffic by Sochi residents, visiting competitors and spectators during the Olympics in the hopes of intercepting any sensitive information that could help to avoid any potential disruptions.

In May 2012, the FSB foiled a plot orchestrated by the Caucasus Emirate leader, Doku Umarov, to attack the Sochi Olympics. Officials discovered weapons that included portable surface-to-air missiles, grenade launchers, flamethrowers, grenades, rifles, and detailed event maps in a safe house just north of Sochi. In July 2013, Umarov made new threats in a video posted on YouTube calling for Caucasus Muslims to rise up and stop Russia from holding the Sochi Olympics.

Vladimir Putin was first elected President of Russia in 1999 after winning popularity for his success against Chechen rebels as head of the FSB. He has since invested huge resources to build Russia’s reputation as a strong and stable state. But the recent attacks in Volgograd suggest that Moscow will be unable to fully secure Russia before the Games. Rumors are flying in the local press that the terrorism was Muslim retaliation for Russia foiling Saudi Arabia’s Syrian sponsored rebels, especially since both blasts appear coordinated and both bombs were packed with “identical” shrapnel. 

In Russia, militancy, terrorism, and organized crime are often related. The Chechen mafia was one of the largest organized crime groups operating in the former Soviet Union next to established Russian mafia gangs. The Chechen gangs originally consisted of criminals of Chechen ethnicity but later tried to recruit former Soviet special military forces, police, and army officers. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1994, the FSB, Russian police, and Russian Slavic mafia gangs untied to destroy the Chechen gangs. Chechen gang members then returned home and fueled the rise of the Chechen separatist movements. 

Vladimir Putin was on a roll in 2013 in his quest to revive the international clout once held by the old Soviet Union. Economically, Russia reinforced its dominance of energy resources in Europe. Militarily and diplomatically, Putin humiliated President Obama, Saudi Arabia, and NATO in the struggles for control of over Syria and containing Iran. A safe and secure Sochi Winter Olympics would have been Putin’s crowning achievement. But as bombings in Volgograd demonstrate, by concentrating huge manpower on safety for the Sochi Olympics, Russia is more vulnerable to militancy, terrorism, and organized crime.