Terrorism Threats Cast Shadow on Putin's Costly Olympics in Sochi

Fear of attack during Winter Olympics convinces Russia to coordinate security moves with United States.

SOCHI – Ten days to the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi and concern over a possible terrorist attack during the games is growing. In addition to a threat of suicide attacks, similar to those carried out last month in the Russian city of Volgograd, Islamist militants have posted online threats warning of chemical attacks. After lengthy hesitation, the Russian government has agreed to include the U.S. administration in the security preparations for the games.

Tens of thousands of security personnel, mainly police officers reinforced with Cossak units, have already arrived in the city. Security is particularly noticeable when entering Sochi: trains going into the city are tightly monitored; their passengers scanned and examined; and the roads are blocked to private vehicles, unless they belong to Sochi residents. Entrance to the three Olympic villages is permitted only to visitors who have been vetted in advance and hold "Olympic passports." Shopping centers and hotels have also stepped up security.

Reports in the Russian media say that more than 100,000 police, soldiers and secret service personnel will be deployed in and around Sochi during the games. The security ring also includes anti-aircraft missiles, surveillance aircraft and drones, attack helicopters, as well as a ground and air-based electronic warfare systems capable monitoring telephone calls and emails.

"Police has gone around the neighborhoods where immigrants live – especially those from the Caucasus – and made it clear they cannot stay in the city during the Olympics," said Boris Pituhov, manager of a local security company. "Entire streets have emptied." Security restrictions have caused delays in large building projects that won't be ready for the Olympics due to lack of workers.

The main group suspected of trying to perpetrate an attack during the games is the Caucasus Emirate, an Islamist militant movement with Al-Qaida ties. The largely Chechen group claimed responsibility for the two suicide bombings in Volgograd in December, which killed 34 people. Touting for Dagestan, one of the group leaders published an online threat to employ chemical weapons during an attack on the Olympic Games.

Moreover, Russian media reported that three women, known as "The Black Widows," are planning to carry out suicide bombings. A picture of one of the Widows, presumed already in Sochi, has been distributed to security units and hotels in the city.

The growing concern made Russia a few weeks ago change its security policy of exclusively relying on its own forces, and, in a rare move, Moscow began cooperating with the U.S., which is sending a large delegation and will also have thousands of citizens in Sochi as spectators. Apart of intelligence-sharing, the U.S. Navy will deploy two warships in the Black Sea, off the coast of Sochi, during the games. In case of a terror attack, plans have been made to evacuate American citizens by sea. The American delegation, as well as the five Israeli athletes, will have its own additional security detail.

The threat of terrorism is the last in a series of headaches for President Vladimir Putin, who has put all his personal prestige into the Sochi games. The Olympic Games are drawing fire internationally due to the continuing repression of LGBT rights under Putin, and the resulting decision of a number of world leaders not to take part in the opening ceremony next week. At home, the public is criticizing the waste and corruption on a massive scale associated with the Olympics budget. With more than $50 billion, the Sochi games will be the most expensive Olympics ever, costing more than all previous winter Olympics combined. 

AP
AP