Skeptic that I am, I am also a sucker for the Olympics. There are a 1,000 reasons to dismiss the Games as a commercial fraud, but still, in every competition, amazing stories of perseverance, love, and achievement emerge. So I’ll be watching every chance I get. This time around, there is much more to worry about than an early exit by the U.S. men’s hockey team, however. No doubt, you’ve already seen all the complaints from journalists in Sochi about sub-standard bathroom facilities. Heck, a dear friend was locked *inside* her hotel room on her first day reporting there. These are funny stories, but can sound a bit like first-world problems.
I’m worried about something much more serious happening during the next three weeks, and I have enough friends there that it’s personal. Not surprisingly, we’ve already learned that visitors to Sochi should expect their entire lives to be hacked. Indeed, the Committee to Protect Journalists cites a Russian government decree published in the state newspaper in November which announces the government’s intention to collect metadata on all telecommunications. (Question: Is that better or worse than what the NSA does?). And NBC’s Richard Engle demonstrated this week how his cell phones were hacked.
When Russians say they need to pry to keep Sochi safe, they aren’t inventing reasons. There are many credible threats of terrorism at the Games.
- Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov — some experts call him the Russian bin Laden — called for attacks on Sochi last summer. Suicide bombings in Vologagrad (formerly Stalingrad) during December that killed 40 people show the threats are real, even if the connection between the attacks and Umarov is tenuous.
- This week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned airlines flying into Russia that bombs might be concealed in toothpaste tubes or cosmetic cases.
- U.S. athletes have been told not to wear U.S. logos outside the Olympic Village. Many athletes chose to leave their families at home
- And there are real threats of kidnappings, too — this week, two Austrian athletes were directly threatened in a letter sent to the Austrian Olympic Committee.
Until figure skating and hockey heat up, you will hear more and more about the threat of terrorism in Sochi. So for some level-headed analysis of the real threat, I turned to Charles Hecker, Director of Global Research and Russia expert at Control Risk, a private global security team. Here’s what Hecker told me.
“There is this ‘cordon sanitaire’ (secure perimeter – Russians are calling it a Ring of Steel) around the area. There is extensive surveillance—including underwater sonar—and in the air and through the electronic waves, every single move that anybody makes in and around Sochi is going to be monitored and recorded,” he said. “There hasn’t been this sort of peacetime security effort in Russia—or in too many other places, frankly—as we’re seeing now down in the North Caucasus and Southern Russia. This is the ultimate test of Russia’s capability.”
Expect Russia to spare no expense — or at least no civil liberty — while monitoring for potential threats, he said. Any family or employee in Sochi should expect everything they do to be watched.
He did offer this comforting message to those worried about direct attacks on Sochi during the Games.
“The security of the games and the Olympic Games sites should be pretty well taken care of, barring something none of us can anticipate,” he said. “There is very little—in fact no—precedent in Russia for terrorist attacks being aimed specifically at tourists and visitors. Almost all of the terrorist activity in Russia has been aimed at government targets and at infrastructure targets.”
Islamic separatists believed to be loyal to Umarov have recently attacked train stations and an airport, for example. And while Umarov lifted an alleged ban on attacking civilians in July while calling for attacks on the Olympics, his ability to execute on such threats is unclear. A security report issued by Control Risks in January makes clear that Caucasus Emirate, the group Umarov leads, is “not a military organization with a reliable line of command.” Any attacks would be planned and carried out “locally and autonomously.”
Russian and Vladimir Putin have every incentive to prevent an embarrassing attack, Hecker noted.
“Forget about it as a sporting event, the Olympics in Russia are far more than that. This is Russia’s attempt at imprinting an entire new image of itself on the world,” he said.
Attacks in other areas of Russia during the Games — in Moscow, St. Petersburg, or other large cities outside Sochi — are more likely, Control Risks says.
But even without an attack, the separatists might be able to claim victory anyway, argues Uval Mond, in an opinion piece that appeared this week in The Times of Israel.
“Before the games even begin, Umarov’s threats have succeeded in generating anxiety to the level of real panic, which has fueled an international debate over the security situation in Russia and the authorities’ ability to guarantee the safety of the visiting athletes and fans,” he wrote. “This arch-terrorist has positioned himself as a geostrategic player whose presence is definitely troubling the sleep of one of the most powerful world leaders. That alone is a victory for Doku Umarov.”