Sunday, August 31, 2014


Russia

Security Concerns Mount As Sochi Olympic Opening Nears

Security guards patrol near the Olympic Park ahead of the Sochi games next month.
Security guards patrol near the Olympic Park ahead of the Sochi games next month.
By Robert Coalson
Security forces in the Black Sea Russian city of Sochi are looking for a woman from the North Caucasus whom they believe might be planning a terrorist attack during next month's winter Olympic games.

Officials are distributing photos of 22-year-old Ruzanna Ibragimova, reportedly the widow of an alleged North Caucasus militant, who is believed to be somewhere inside the Sochi security zone that was established on January 7. According to some media reports, officials may be looking for as many as four suspects.

The alerts about Ibragimova are just the latest alarm bells ringing as Russia prepares to welcome the world to President Vladimir Putin's signature event in an area just a few hundred kilometers from the most volatile part of the Russian Federation -- the North Caucasus.

Ever since Sochi applied to host the Olympics, critics have warned that the risk of terrorism was high because of the long-simmering Islamist insurgency that has gripped the North Caucasus.

Doku Umarov, the head of the North Caucasus insurgency and Russia's most-wanted militant, has repeatedly denounced the Olympics as "satanic" and has vowed to stop them "using any methods that Allah allows us."

Over the weekend, a video appeared on a jihadist website showing two men who took responsibility for two suicide bombings in the southern Russian city of Volgograd last month. More than 30 people were killed in those blasts. Russian officials are investigating when that video was recorded and whether the two men were the Volgograd bombers

On the video, the men, who claim to represent a terrorist group from the restive North Caucasus republic of Daghestan, say militants "have a surprise package" prepared for the Olympics. "If you hold the Olympics," one of the men said, "you'll get a present from us for all the Muslim blood that's been spilled."

'Black Widows'

According to Russian journalist and security expert Andrei Soldatov, reports that the video originated with terrorists from Iraq are mistaken:

"This video is clearly a message that is primarily sent to the citizens of central Russia," he says. "Even the songs playing in the background are in Russian, which is relatively unusual for such clips. This message is not directed at residents of the North Caucasus, but at citizens of [the rest of] Russia."

In addition, on January 18, security forces in the Daghestani capital of Makhachkala reported killing seven suspected militants during an operation there. One of those killed was reportedly the 26-year-old widow of a slain militant whom authorities say was being groomed for an unspecified terrorist attack.

So-called black widows and other female terrorists from the North Caucasus have carried out or been involved in many terrorist attacks in Russia since around 2000. The more notorious incidents include a woman who killed more than 40 people in a Moscow metro explosion in February 2004, as well as two others blew up two commercial airliners in August 2004, killing 90. In October, a female suicide bomber blew up a bus in Volgograd, killing seven people.

Earlier this month, security officials conducted an antiterrorist sweep in Stavropol Krai -- also in southern Russia -- after a mysterious car explosion and the discovery of three dead bodies. In December, three people were killed in a car bombing in the Stavropol Krai city of Pyatigorsk.
 
While speaking to reporters in Sochi on January 19, President Putin expressed confidence that the games would be secure.

"Our task -- the task of the organizers -- is to ensure security for the participants in the Olympics and for the guests at this sporting event," he said. "And we are doing everything in order to achieve this."

Putin also emphasized international cooperation in ensuring a safe event.

"If we show weakness, show fear, demonstrate our fear, then by doing so we are helping terrorists achieve their goals," he said. "I think that the international community, those working in all spheres -- humanitarian, political, economic -- must unite their efforts in combating such acts, criminal and terrorist acts such as the murder of innocent people."

U.S. Concerns

The United States is cooperating with Russia on Sochi security. The U.S. Defense Department has said that two U.S. Navy ships in the Black Sea and unspecified "air…assets" will be "available if requested" by Moscow. In addition, according to CNN, agents with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are informally questioning people from the Caucasus region in the United States.

An unnamed U.S. security source told Fox News that "practically all our terrorism and national security agencies are operating" in the Sochi security zone. The source said U.S. agents are assisting in the search for Ibragimova.

But amid the cooperation, there are also signs of discord. The State Department has issued a travel warning for the games. And Mike Rogers, who chairs the Intelligence Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, told CNN that Moscow is not sufficiently sharing intelligence with Washington.

"We don't seem to be getting the information we need to protect our athletes," he said. "They're not giving us the full story."

Likewise, security analyst Soldatov suggests that cooperation between U.S. and Russian security agencies may not be as effective as it could be:

"Several officials in the U.S. administration have said it seems to them that cooperation at present between the Americans and the Russians regarding security in Sochi is inadequate, that the Russian special services are not asking for sufficient help," he says.

Russia has deployed more than 40,000 security personnel to the Sochi security zone, including a contingent of more than 400 Cossacks, which arrived in Sochi earlier this month and will carry out patrols on city streets in full Cossack regalia.

Soldatov emphasizes, however, that the key to security is not in such numbers alone.

"The whole problem  is that in order to prevent attacks by lone suicide bombers -- and at this point we have to assume that is the main threat -- the quantity of forces and equipment in Sochi is not the critical issue," he says. "The critical issue is the quality of coordination, the exchange of information among them, and their ability to get actionable information."


RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Lyubov Chizhova contributed to this report

Robert Coalson

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