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Reexamining the threat to the Sochi Olympic Games

No matter how professional, well-equipped, and committed Vilayat Dagestan is, attacking the Olympic Games will be no easy task

Editor’s Note: The following article by Scott Stewart, Re-Examining the Threat to the Sochi Olympic Games, is republished with permission of Stratfor, a company that uses a unique, intel-based approach to analyze world affairs, and provide global awareness and guidance to individuals, governments, and businesses. Scott Stewart supervises the day-to-day operations of Stratfor’s intelligence team and plays a central role in coordinating the company’s analytical process with its business goals. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

On Jan. 19, a group called Vilayat Dagestan released a video on its website claiming responsibility for the Dec. 29 and Dec. 30, 2013, suicide bombings in Volgograd, Russia. The Dec. 29 attack targeted the main train station in Volgograd and the device was detonated just outside the passenger screening point. The Dec. 30 attack targeted a public transportation trolley bus.

The video contained a segment ostensibly detailing the construction of one of the devices used in the December attacks as well as statements made by the two purported suicide operatives. Notably, the presumed suicide operatives featured in the video were not the subjects Russian authorities had previously identified as the Volgograd bombers.

Near the end of the 49-minute video was a statement threatening the Olympic Games, which will be held in Sochi, Russia, from Feb. 7 to Feb. 23. (The Paralympics will also be held in Sochi, from March 7 to March 16.) One of the presumed bombers said “As far as your [Putin’s] Olympics go, the one which you want to have so badly, we want to let you know we made a present for you. You do what you want, and we will do what we want. If you have Olympics we will have a present for tourists as well. This will also be a revenge for the shed blood around the world.”

The statement has made quite a splash in the global media as panicked news stories discussed the “unique” threat to the Sochi Olympics and U.S. lawmakers fretted about Olympic security on TV talk shows. In truth, it would be very unusual for a terrorist group to announce in advance that it was going to attack a specific target within a narrow time frame. I have been investigating and analyzing terrorism since the 1980s, and I am unaware of a militant group ever conducting a successful terrorist attack after issuing such a clearly defined threat.

But this type of terrorist theater, in which the international media acts as a terror magnifier, is exactly what Vilayat Dagestan hoped to achieve when they released the video. It is clearly intended to be a psychological warfare tool. Threatening emails sent to Olympic Committees such as those of Hungary and Slovenia may also be part of this propaganda effort. As we’ve previously discussed, propaganda efforts are extremely important in modern terrorism, and even if it is impossible to conduct an attack against a high-profile international media event such as the Olympics, creating panic in the media benefits the Dagestani militants by bringing attention to their cause and by allowing them to embarrass the Russian government -- all while allowing them to terrorize people across the globe vicariously.

Vilayat Dagestan
“Vilayat,” a word that comes from various languages in the region, means “state” or “administrative subdivision.” The Caucasus Emirates, the largest militant group active in the Caucasus is divided into smaller administrative sections, and Vilayat Dagestan is one of them.

Though the identities of the suicide bombers involved in the Volgograd attacks in December are now known, the analytical points we previously drew from the attacks are no less salient: Aspiring militants in the region can easily connect with professional terrorist operatives, and these operatives have the expertise and access to ordnance to be able to train and equip them.

At the beginning of the video, a team of bombmakers is shown preparing what is believed to be one of the suicide devices from the Volgograd attacks. The bombmakers, whose faces were never shown on camera, wear gloves to prevent leaving fingerprints that would allow them to be identified and apprehended by Russian authorities. They are shown preparing what appears to be an artillery shell for use as a suicide device. They drill out the fuse well, insert blasting caps into the hole and then wire the blasting caps to a simple command detonation switch. The video also shows the bombmakers testing the wiring of the firing circuit. The fact that the bombmakers use two blasting caps -- a technique called dual priming -- and test their firing circuit is a sign that they have been professionally trained.

The video shows that the device was manufactured with a simple command detonation switch that was attached to the bomber’s arm and hand. There is no indication in the video that they employed a more complex firing chain with a backup detonation system that could be fired remotely if the bomber got cold feet. This may signify that the group is confident in its ability to groom and indoctrinate suicide bombers. Indeed, in all three suicide attacks in Volgograd since October, the bombers have activated the devices.

The Threat to the Olympic Games
But no matter how professional, well-equipped, and committed Vilayat Dagestan is, attacking the Olympic Games will be no easy task. As we noted in our assessment of the threat to the Olympics, Sochi is a remote village, and access to Sochi and the Olympic sites can be sealed off via concentric rings of security -- what the Russians are calling the “ring of steel.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has been working for many years to reaffirm Russia’s role as an international leader, and he has staked a lot of his personal pride and reputation, and the reputation of Russia itself, on these games. As a result, the Russians have devoted significant resources to securing the games -- Moscow reportedly is using three times more personnel than London did in the previous Olympics.

In the wake of the Volgograd attacks, a renewed militant threat and international trepidation, the Russians will undoubtedly take even more precautions. Thus, it is highly unlikely that Vilayat Dagestan will be able to penetrate Olympic security and conduct an attack at the games.

This assessment is supported by a review of recent militant attacks in Russia. Even though Vilayat Dagestan has professional bombmakers and well-indoctrinated suicide bombers, it has only managed to hit soft targets with minimal security. The Dec. 29 bombing at the train station in Volgograd occurred outside the security screening checkpoint, not beyond it. Even the January 2011 Caucuses Emirates attack against Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport involved a strike outside the airport security hardline. The group’s history of attacks demonstrates no ability to attack heavily secured targets, making it highly unlikely that it possesses the operational tradecraft to penetrate Olympic security -- especially after having made a specific threat against the games. (Caucasus Emirates emir Doku Umarov also directly threatened the games in a video released July 2013.)

By its nature, terrorism depends on clandestine activity and the element of surprise. Broadly speaking, it is a tool used by an insurgent or militant groups, or even a weak state, against a stronger military power. Those conducting terrorist attacks must surprise their enemy -- they do not have the strength to directly engage security forces and impose their will militarily. Therefore, it is rare for an actor to execute an attack it has repeatedly advertised. It is one thing for Osama bin Laden to make general threats, like “We are declaring war against the United States,” but it is quite another to make highly specific threats, like “We are going to attack New York and Washington in the first two weeks of September 2001.”

Olympic security has also been significantly improved and increased since the last successful attack inside the Olympic security perimeter in 1972. (Eric Rudolph’s attack in Centennial Park during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics was conducted against a soft target -- a concert open to the public -- outside the Olympic security perimeter.) Based on these improvements in Olympic security and the demonstrated operational limitations of the militants in the region, we are far more likely to see attacks against soft targets outside of the Olympic security perimeter in Sochi than we are an attack inside the security perimeter.

Since terrorism involves deception, most direct threats that have been made have not resulted in attacks. Rather, specific threats are made to generate publicity and create panic. Those who make them want to create panic and then either observe what security response the threats generate or divert security forces to create a more permissive operational environment in another area.

Velayat Dagestan’s threats and the earlier Caucasus Emirates threats to the Olympics have already drawn the media’s attention and prompted increased security precautions in Sochi. It is unclear whether the increased security presence in Sochi will result in a more permissive operational environment elsewhere in Russia that will help militants conduct attacks. However, as the Volgograd attacks have shown, even an attack far away from the Olympics will still generate a lot of media attention, embarrass the host country and its president and instill fear in Olympic athletes, spectators and the public.

Scott Stewart is STRATFOR’s VP of Analysis. He is a former Diplomatic Security Service Special Agent who was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations, most notably the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the follow-on New York City bomb plot investigation, during which he served as lead investigator for the U.S. State Department. He led a team of Americans who aided the government of Argentina in investigating the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, and was involved in investigations following a series of attacks and attempted attacks by the Iraqi intelligence service during the first Gulf War.