Sochi 2014 Threat Assessment
I have been promising to write this for quite some time, but have never managed to get around to it. The Winter Olympic & Paralympic Games in Sochi are set to begin in about 6 weeks, and the security threat needs to be addressed.
The Canadians wrote a report in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing and their media got hold of a copy and released it this week [http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/12/15/notorious-russian-terrorist-could-target-westerners-at-satanic-olympic-games-canadian-intelligence-document/]. However, the report is heavily redacted and offers nothing new in the way of information.
Meanwhile, Stratfor has mapped out the security measures in place for the Olympic Games in Sochi. Which is helpful for those of us who are visual, but I still think that the great threat is to the so-called ‘soft targets’ outside the zone the FSB has set up. But what are those targets?
Security is being tightened around public transportation, especially trains. In April of this year, the Moscow Times reported that “Russian Railways… introduced additional security checks at entrances to 32 major train stations across Russia.” They also implemented other security checks, and gave railway workers more authority to conduct searches of passengers if they feel the need to.
This is a necessity because of past terror acts on trains, including the Sapsan and the Nevsky Express.
The Sapsan is high-speed train that began operating in 2009 between Moscow and St Petersburg. The security services allege that it was the target of a terror act in August 2011 that they managed to foil. This past Tuesday, a Russian newspaper reported that 2 young men rode on the roof of the Sapsan wearing ski-suits and helmets. They were caught, and fined 100 rubles (approximately $3). An amusing story, but it does open up some questions about their methods, and how they were able to do so in the first place.
The Nevsky Express is another high-speed train that also operates between Moscow and St Petersburg. Twice terrorists have hit the Nevsky Express: first in August 2007, and again in November 2009. The second attack resulted in the deaths of 27 persons. The railway promised to put up cameras to monitor the train route, but it is still unclear if they followed through (I’d appreciate any updates).
A new high-speed train has been added to connect Moscow to Adler, where many sporting events will take place during the Olympics. While this has not been hit, an attempt on it cannot be ruled out.
Trains would be relatively easy and inexpensive to hit. A few kilos of TNT on a track would be enough to derail a train, if done right. A train derailment in July on the way to Adler shed light on this. The authorities denied the derailment was the result of an act of terror, though they never offered proof. And the security services cannot monitor every kilometre of track at every moment, even if security cameras have been installed.
Another threat to public transport is that of a suicide bomber on a bus. The terror attack on a Volgograd bus this past October showed that suicide bombing is still a popular method. The infusion of ethnic Russians in the Daghestani branch of the IK, in particular, makes it easier for them to get past checkpoints. Attacks on similar targets, normally outside the scope of the federal authorities purview cannot be discounted.
A plane hijacking or bombing would be more difficult to accomplish, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility. In October of this year, I wrote about a story about a man who attempted to bribe his way onto a plane for under $50. He ultimately failed, but the security risk from the systemic corruption that Russia faces cannot be over emphasized.
I would not discount the possibility of Umarov’s death next month. However, while this would be a victory in the short-term, it would be nothing more than a publicity stunt, as Umarov’s control over the IK is negligible. And in making the threat to Sochi only about Umarov, the Russian security services would be downplaying the true threat and risk to the Olympic games.
The IK is too atomised to effectively carry out a series of coordinated attacks at this time. This is partially due to the Russians’ counter-terrorism efforts, and partially due to poor leadership. Umarov is not a strategist, and it does not appear that anyone else in the IK is either. Nevertheless, a series of lone wolf terror acts cannot be discounted. The infrastructure is still in place in many cells of the IK, particularly in Daghestan, which is where the suicide bomber in Volgograd came from.
As with any public sporting event on the scale of the Winter Olympic Games, it is impossible to fully guarantee security of the fans or the athletes. The risk is even greater for Sochi since it is located near a region that has been experiencing a low-grade civil war for over a decade. The British and American Governments have both issued travel warnings to those attending the Olympic Games. The British even provided a map [h/t Rod McLeod] telling people to stay away from areas bordering Sochi. While the Russian security services are doing their best to protect Sochi, but it may not be enough.
EDIT: It appears that the authorities are preparing the public for Umarov’s sudden death. Kadyrov said today that he hopes (prays?) that Umarov is already dead, and they are just looking for his body. This could be Kadyrov just posturing, but it will be interesting to see where it leads.