Making Sochi the “Terrorism Games”

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s SCPS Center for Global Affairs and an expert on Russian security affairs. He is currently carrying out field research in Moscow.

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What is the price of security? Three billion US dollars, it seems, as far as the Russians are concerned. Even in the midst of an economic slowdown, they have committed unparalleled resources to protect the Sochi Winter Olympics from jihadist terrorists, who largely hail from the turbulent North Caucasus.

More than 50,000 police and troops are being deployed, and a “ring of steel” is virtually locking the Games off from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Russian forces have stepped up their counterinsurgency operations in the North Caucasus, east of Sochi, in the hope that rebels busily avoiding arrest or worse are not going to be planning terrorist attacks.

While the chances of a successful attack on Sochi are relatively low, no security plan is foolproof, and there is always the chance that an attack might get through. The news that a suspected terrorist, Ruzanna “Salima” Ibragimova, may already be in Sochi is a useful reminder of this.

Perhaps most worrying for the authorities is the fact that some ethnic Slavs – though admittedly only a small number – have been converted to extreme Islam. The police tend to adopt crude racial profiling: watching people get off a train coming into Moscow, for instance, it is striking how often travellers looking as if they hail from the Caucasus get pulled aside for document checks. So, Slavic terrorists represent an unexpected new threat.

Most likely, though, the scale of the security around Sochi will simply displace attacks to other, more vulnerable targets. For example, three new double-decker express trains that shuttle passengers between Moscow and Sochi run on a thousand-mile stretch of track. It is impossible to monitor every bridge, culvert, or nook in which a bomb could be planted. Terrorists have hit the Moscow to St. Petersburg express train twice – in 2007 and 2009 – so this new line seems a likely target.

In the past month, deadly terrorist attacks have taken place in the southern Russian cities of Volgograd, Pyatigorsk, and Stavropol, and there are likely to be more.

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