Defense & National Security

Mounting security concerns at the Sochi Olympics

Mounting security concerns at the Sochi Olympics

“I would not go, and I don’t think I would send my family,” Senator Angus King (I-ME) said last weekend of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.  “It’s just such a rich target.”

That’s not what anyone connected with the Olympics wanted to hear, especially given that King sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee.  It seems as if another troubling security concern pops up every day.

If you want to buy a ticket to the Games, you’ll have to get in line behind all the “black widow” Chechen suicide bombers streaming into Sochi.  The Russian police have been handing out fliers at hotels asking guests to keep an eye peeled for Ruzanna “Salima” Ibragimova, wife of a slain Chechen militant.  According to CNN, she’s not the only “black widow” who might be on the prowl:

Security experts stressed Monday that the woman is likely one of many suspects authorities are trying to find.

“I guarantee they’re talking about this one black widow,” former CIA officer Mike Baker said, “but there are others that they’re also worried about.”

They’re worried enough to have serious hardware on standby in the event of a crisis:

The U.S. military will have up to two warships and several transport aircraft on standby under a contingency plan to help evacuate American officials and athletes from the Winter Olympics, if ordered, a U.S. official said Monday.

The State Department would take the lead in organizing and evacuating Americans, if necessary, the official with direct knowledge of the plan told CNN.

Moscow would have to ask for such assistance before the United States would act, the official said.

But planes and ships are clearly there “if something happens like a major terrorist attack and we need to get Americans out,” the official said.

That’s a relief, because the Obama State Department is renowned for its skill at protecting and evacuating Americans who come under fire on foreign soil.

NBC News profiled three more black widow bombers who might by lying in wait for the Olympic torch as it passes through Rostov-on-Don Wednesday, plus a couple of male bombers Russian authorities are worried about:

Another poster seen by NBC News on Tuesday identified two male suspects, 21-year-old Ruslan Saufutdinov and 25-year-old Murad Musaev, who it said were suspected of planning attacks somewhere in Southern Russia.

Alieva, Tsakhaeva, and Musaev are all from Dagestan, a Russian republic in the restive Caucasus area. Saufutdinov is from Russia’s Orenburg region and Aslanova is from the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, according to the posters.

On Sunday, a video surfaced in which two men from an Islamist militant group threatened to attack the Olympics, warning that “a surprise” is in store for President Vladimir Putin and tourists attending the Sochi Olympics.

The men claim responsibility in the video for two suicide bombings last month in the Russian city of Volgograd that killed 34 people. The Olympic torch passed through Volgograd on Monday on its way to Sochi, where the Games will open on Feb. 7.

AFP has some chilling details from the posthumously released jihad video:

In a video posted on a well-known jihadi forum, two men believed to have been suicide bombers in last month’s deadly bombings in Volgograd speak of them — and warned of more.

“We’ve prepared a present for you and all tourists who’ll come over,” the video says in part.

“If you hold the Olympics, you’ll get a present from us for the Muslim blood that’s been spilled.”

A security analyst told NBC he doubts the Russian security services will be able to hold all these bombers at bay, given how easily they can blend in with the mob of tourists attending the Olympics, adding it was “difficult to imagine” Chechen terrorists would pass up on this opportunity to make a big, bloody statement.  Another analyst described Sochi as “the most dangerous threatened environment that we’ve seen for the Olympics” to CNN, adding that the athletes would have much better protection than spectators and media.

Security consultant Bill Rathburn, who directed security for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, told Yahoo News, “In my opinion, it’s not a matter of whether there will be some incident, it’s just a matter of how bad it’s going to be.”  He has a particular threat in mind:

Rathburn’s biggest concern is with Doku Umarov, described by some as “Russia’s bin Laden.” Six months ago the Chechen rebel leader threatened attacks on civilians in Russia and urged Islamic separatists to use force to disrupt the Olympics, which he described as “satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors.”

Since Umarov’s threat, three suicide bombers have killed more than 40 people and injured more than 100 in Volgograd, a major transportation hub 430 miles northeast of Sochi, a resort town where the Games will take place. The two most recent attacks came just a few weeks ago.

“To my knowledge this is the only Olympics that have had an announced, credible threat well prior to the Games,” Rathburn said. “Unless the Russians can take down the leadership and a significant number of that group or his followers before the Olympics, I think they’re in for some major problems.”

CNN conveys security assurances from Russian president Vladimir Putin:

Putin has pledged that visitors to Sochi for the Winter Olympics will be kept safe.

Russia has plenty of experience in keeping international events secure, Putin said, pointing to the G8 and G20 summits as examples.

Access to Sochi is under heavy restriction ahead of the games, and Putin said Sunday in an interview with half a dozen Russian and international broadcasters that about 40,000 members of Russia’s police and security forces would be guarding events.

This massive concentration of forces has, in turn, led to concerns that attacks might be carried out elsewhere in Russia while the government is intensely focused on keeping Sochi safe.

There is conflicting testimony from U.S. officials about their confidence in the Olympic security arrangements.  In addition to Senator King’s dramatic vote of low confidence, House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers (R-MI) complained that “we don’t seem to be getting all of the information we need to protect our athletes in the Games.”

But CNN quotes former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden saying he trusts Russia’s ability to maintain security at the Olympics, and he thinks “Americans will be quite safe.”

Update: There are news reports this morning that one of the black widow bombers mentioned by NBC News, Zaira Alieva, has been killed by Russian forces in Dagestan.

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