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‘Ring of Steel’ Tightens in Sochi

Experts Weigh in on Terrorist Threats and Security at 2014 Olympics

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Threats to the Sochi Olympics have fans on edge and security officials on guard.

By Julia Gavin

While fans cheer on athletes at the 2014 Olympics in Russia, they’ll be surrounded by a “ring of steel” — more than 40,000 security professionals deployed around Sochi to protect the games from violence. As the games approach, attacks and threats are beginning to overshadow the athletic feats the Olympics are intended to celebrate.

The events, clustered in Sochi on the coast of the Black Sea and in the Krasnaya Plyana Mountains nearby, will be compact compared to many past Olympics. But the close quarters make the games a more tempting target.

“People will be constantly moving around from venue to venue; in most cases, these are people who paid a lot of money for the privilege of attending the Olympics, and they may not take kindly to being inconvenienced by an overly aggressive security posture that diminishes their ability to enjoy the events,” says Prof. James Forest, director of the Security Studies program and a member of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies (CTSS) faculty. “Furthermore, heavy clothing will be common – making it more difficult to detect individuals smuggling weapons or devices.”

Forest says visitors should expect bag searches, metal and bomb detectors and undercover officers throughout the games.

“It’s not just Russia. There are many nations involved in trying to prevent anything bad happening at the Sochi Olympics,” says Forest. “In my opinion, the most important work is being done now, far away from Sochi, where intelligence agencies are gathering information and following leads about any potential threat or planned attack.”

Those plans have already been put in motion recently as 34 people were killed and dozens injured in two December bombings in Volgograd, a transportation hub about 600 miles from Sochi. The bombings followed a video of Chechen militant leader Doku Umarov calling for attacks to disrupt and stop the Olympics. Umarov and other insurgents say that Russia’s leaders “plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of (our) ancestors” and specifically directs followers to kill Russians. The Chechen insurgents have a long history of violence within Russia and abroad. A video of two individuals thought to be some of the Volgograd bombers was later released, The men have been connected to Umarov’s group.

“This is not a group that attacks and then drops the issue,” says Prof. Mia Bloom, also CTSS faculty. “Umarov is especially into hitting infrastructure. The randomness of the plans and wariness that everyone feels after a transportation attack fulfills their goals of disrupting the daily life and economy of their target. Anyone could be traveling, so anyone could be a target.”

Along with disturbing daily operations and instilling fear, most terrorists want to embarrass the area’s leaders and spread their message through media coverage. With Russian President Vladimir Putin insisting the games will be safe and millions of cameras about to enter Sochi, the games are a prime opportunity for Umarov and other attackers.

“International media coverage is certainly one dimension for why terrorists would consider attacking the Olympics,” says Forest. “It’s not really a matter of sheer numbers, but the international mixture of potential victims might also be an attraction, in terms of magnifying the impact of psychological trauma to multiple countries.”

Effects of Increased Security at the Olympics

Implementing security measures can hurt as well as help, according to Bloom.

“The officers are stopping anyone that fits their physical profile of Chechen people and checking them out,” says Bloom. “They might not be radicalized, but once they feel like a target, that could change.”

Officials are putting a special focus on women as potential planners or suicide bombers. While female terrorists are not a new phenomenon, there have been indications that known individuals are in or near Sochi. Bloom says this not a surprise since women can often get closer to targets than men can without raising suspicions.

Increased media attention from circulating images of suspected women furthers the terrorists’ goal of reaching more people.

While the country is still preparing for the games, security officials can watch activity and alter their tactics. After the games begin, the number of visitors and scheduled events may make it harder to protect everyone. 

“Once the event begins, people around the world will be holding their breath and crossing their fingers that nothing happens,” says Forest. “But we all know full well there is no such thing as being 100 percent secure at an event like this.”