To quell terrorism fears as the Sochi Olympics near, President Vladimir Putin of Russia has mustered an army of tens of thousands of police and military personnel, installed a security system dubbed the “ring of steel,” and issued repeated assurances that these Games will be safe.
But a frantic search this week for a potential suicide bomber who may have infiltrated Sochi, and threats of bloodshed from Islamic militant groups based only a few hundred miles from the city, have fueled alarm that Russia might be focused on the wrong kind of threat — and unprepared for the consequences of violence.
US officials have added their own concerns about the willingness of Russian security agencies to share intelligence, and hinted at frustration that Russian officials have failed to share their contingency plans in case of an emergency that might require the evacuation of the 15,000 Americans expected to attend the Games.
“Russia is not great at sharing information with the United States,” Representative William R. Keating, Democrat of Bourne, said Wednesday after returning from a trip to Sochi in which he inspected security procedures at the Olympic venues. “We’re willing to do everything we can . . . but it’s their country.’’
Keating said the Russian security force in Sochi would comprise 100,000 personnel, including 40,000 police and 30,000 military. He said security measures include drones and six independent antimissile systems.
He expressed confidence that American citizens at the Olympics would be safe, but his visit comes amid concerns by himself and other lawmakers who have said that the Russians have resisted sharing intelligence with US agencies as had been hoped.
Keating, after meeting with Russian officials in May, had suggested that better intelligence sharing might have prevented the Boston Marathon bombings, though at the time he faulted the FBI for not acting more decisively after Russian intelligence alerted US officials that alleged bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev might be trying to join Islamic insurgents in Russia. US and Russian intelligence have worked together more closely in the aftermath of the bombings, Keating said, “but it has not expanded beyond the Boston Marathon cooperation.”
Tsarnaev in 2012 spent six months in Dagestan, a restive Russian province on the Caspian Sea that has become the center of an insurgency led by militants seeking to create an independent state governed by Islamic Shariah law in the Caucasus.
As the Feb. 7 opening of the Olympics approaches, events in the region have renewed security concerns.
Over the weekend, a video surfaced on a Russian-language jihadist website in which two men, who said they were members of a terrorist group based in Dagestan, took responsibility for two suicide bombings last month in which more than 30 people were killed in the southern Russian city of Volgograd, approximately 400 miles inland from Sochi on the Black Sea coast.
In the video, one of the men said, “If you hold the Olympics, you’ll get a present from us for the Muslim blood that’s been spilled.” A different post on the site goes further, threatening further attacks, “up to and including chemical [weapons].”
Putin, buffeted by the threats, as well as warnings such as the State Department’s recent alert to Americans of the potential for terrorism at the Sochi Games, over the weekend asserted that Russia is prepared for the threat.
“We have a perfect understanding of the scope of the threat, and how to deal with it, and how to prevent it,” he said at a briefing with international media.
Putin, however, has been silent on the Pentagon’s offer to supply ships and air assets to assist in a mass evacuation from the Games in the event one is necessary.
Analysts suggest that the show of force in Sochi, with its numerous security perimeters, rigid document checks, and street patrols, has made large-scale attacks that were the signatures of the Chechen rebels — such as the 2002 raid on a Moscow theater in which more than 900 hostages were held — unlikely.
“I foresee no strong possibility of major terrorist attack that would require mass evacuation, like a mass hostage taking or a series of hostage-takings,” said Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.
He also said potential terrorists will have difficulty moving explosives into the city, past security checkpoints. More likely, Saradzhyan said, is the possibility that would-be terrorists planted bombs in facilities during their construction.
“Or people have moved into the city long ago and are just biding their time waiting for the right time to strike,” he said.
That concern took on the look of reality after Russian security forces launched a massive search this week for at least four possible suicide bombers — including the 22-year-old widow of an alleged militant in the North Caucasus who is believed to be inside the Sochi security zone.
The incident shed light on another problem, said Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist who has written extensively on Russian intelligence agencies: poor communication among various Russian law enforcement agencies. For several days, he said, authorities were searching for a possible suicide bomber who authorities in Dagestan said was actually killed before the manhunt began.
“Intelligence gathering and intelligence sharing — here the FSB and others still have problems, mostly caused by lack of trust between different departments,” Soldatov said.
The threat of terror from the North Caucasus was always a concern for these Olympics — in 2007, when Russia was awarded the Games, an Islamic insurgency in Chechnya was also still active. Doku Umarov, the leader of the North Caucasus insurgency and Russia’s most-wanted militant, has repeatedly vowed to stop the Olympics “using any methods that Allah allows us.”
The pro-Moscow leader of Chechnya recently said that Umarov had been killed, but there has been no confirmation. His death, analysts say, would not hinder the insurgency’s highly autonomous groups, which are responsible for daily raids on government forces.
“The main goal is to show that this is our territory, and holding these infidel Games with all the various attractions shouldn’t be done,” said Gordon M. Hahn of Geostrategic Forecasting, a think tank based in Chicago, who has written extensively about Islamic extremism in the North Caucasus.
He said the threat of chemical weapons mentioned in the video has some validity: Insurgents from Dagestan have been fighting in Syria alongside jihadist groups, raising the possibility of access to the chemical weapons arsenal in that country.
Analysts also pointed out that with so much attention focused on Sochi, and in particular, the Olympic venues, militants may find an opportunity to strike at other targets within Russia — such as the attack on Volgograd.
“This is a perfect opportunity to achieve maximum impact with minimum effort,” said Pavel Baev, a Russia specialist at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo. “Sochi, in this context, is a major opportunity for every small terrorist cell. Getting there is very difficult, it is by no means a soft target, but so many security resources have been concentrated there, and in Moscow, that many other places have become targets that are softer-than-soft.”
Keating noted concerns that areas just outside Sochi’s security zone could be targeted, as well as targets in other cities in the region.
While he expects that American citizens at the Olympics will be safe, he urged them to stay vigilant and pay attention to updates from the State Department.
Keating said he would not, as a member of Congress, attend the Games in support of the Obama administration, which is avoiding the Games because of a Russian law that criminalizes public expression of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender relationships.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. David Filipov can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.