[An explosion that destroyed a trolleybus in Volgograd less than 24 hours later, at rush hour on December 30, killed at least 10 people.]
In a video address to his supporters six months ago, Umarov declared that “they are planning to hold the games on the bones of many, many Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea. It is incumbent on us as Muslims not to permit that, resorting to any methods Allah allows us."
The answer to that question hinges on two interrelated imponderables. First, does Umarov have the manpower and tactical skills to stage one or more military operations of such magnitude and complexity that they could disrupt the games? And second, assuming the answer to the first question is “no,” what level of security threat to participants and spectators is the Russian leadership prepared to accept?
The first question is all the more difficult to answer because there is no way of knowing whether Umarov intends to present Moscow with a credible ultimatum after seizing hostages -- "Call off the Games or hundreds of people die" -- or mount a series of terrorist attacks so shocking that the Russian authorities have no choice but to abandon an undertaking into which they have reportedly channeled 1.3 trillion rubles ($40 billion).
There are precedents for both approaches. Between 1995 and 2004, the Chechen resistance staged four major operations with the aim of wringing political concessions from Moscow: the Budyonnovsk hostage taking in June 1995 masterminded by radical field commander Shamil Basayev; a similar hostage taking in Kizlyar in December 1996 commanded by Salman Raduyev; the Moscow theater hostage taking in October 2002; and the Beslan-school hostage taking in September 2004. None achieved the desired results, although Basayev succeeded in securing from then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin free passage for himself and his men back to Chechnya.
Both Basayev and Raduyev are now dead. Umarov himself has never been identified as having masterminded a major operation, and it is questionable whether any of his senior commanders has the necessary tactical vision to plan and carry out a major military offensive, as opposed to providing logistical and psychological training to potential suicide bombers, as Umarov deputy Aslan Byutukayev (aka Amir Khamzat) has reportedly done on more than one occasion.
Aslanbek Vadalov, arguably the most effective military planner among the surviving Chechen field commanders, successfully planned two major attacks in Chechnya in August and October 2010, but they involved only a dozen and three fighters respectively. And Vadalov has not featured prominently in any of Umarov’s video clips since re-pledging his loyalty to him in the summer of 2011.
Thwarting a possible large-scale hostage taking in a hospital was nonetheless one of the practice exercises carried out in November by 7,000 combined military, Interior Ministry, and Federal Security Service (FSB) troops in preparation for the Sochi Olympics.
In addition to the question of who might coordinate and command such an attack, it is not clear how many fighters Umarov has at his disposal in light of the new rift between him and Tarkhan Gaziyev, who has formally challenged Umarov’s argument that his rejection in 2007 of the cause of Chechen independent statehood was justified under Islamic law. A report recently compiled by the Center for PolitInformation headed by Aleksei Mukhin noted the (admittedly remote) possibility that Umarov’s men could be reinforced by more experienced fighters from Afghanistan or (less unlikely) from Syria.
The North Caucasus insurgency has also mounted two successful operations targeting major sporting events despite tight security. In the first, in May 2004, then-Chechen President Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov was killed, together with five other people, by a remote-controlled bomb apparently cemented under his seat at a Grozny sports stadium. No less an expert than former FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev suggested that the bomb was planted by, or with the connivance of, Kadyrov’s immediate entourage.
In the second, six years later, the Kabardino-Balkaria insurgency wing planted an explosive device at the Nalchik race course with the aim of killing former Kabardino-Balkaria Republic Interior Minister Khachim Shogenov. Shogenov was one of 30 prominent officials injured in the blast, which killed only an elderly World War II veteran.
The risk that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) could be implanted in the fabric of facilities constructed specially for the Olympic Games was highlighted in the Mukhin Center report.
The alternative tactic would be for the insurgency to mount in the run-up to the Olympics a series of suicide bombings such as those perpetrated in Moscow in 2010 and 2011, and/or car bombings such as the one that targeted the main police station in Nazran in the summer of 2010 in which 25 people were killed and up to 250 injured.
The chances of a successful attack of whatever kind must, however, be assessed in the light of the unprecedented security arrangements already in place.
All the construction workers brought from outside the region to work on infrastructure projects in preparation for the Olympics are to be sent home by the end of December. Access to Sochi by motor vehicles has been restricted by law for the duration of the Games.
The security measures for the Sochi Olympics drafted in 2009 will be enforced by 42,000 police officers and 10,000 Interior Ministry troops, while 23,000 Ministry for Emergency Situations personnel will be deployed in the mountains and along the coast.
Any insurgent group intending to launch an attack will thus not only be heavily outnumbered. They will probably also be operating on terrain that is unfamiliar (unless Umarov began deploying his men to Krasnodar Krai months ago) and hampered by logistical problems in the absence of the extensive network of support personnel that any insurgency needs to function with maximum effectiveness.
That said, a large-scale hostage-taking far enough away from Sochi not to fall foul of the intensified security measures might stand a greater chance of success.
Andrei Soldatov, chief editor of the website agentra.ru, takes seriously the possibility of terrorist action to sabotage the Winter Olympics. He argues, as does RFE/RL North Caucasus Service Director Aslan Doukaev, that “in order to thwart the Olympics there is no need to stage large-scale terrorist attacks in which a large number of people would participate. By and large, bombings could literally be organized by terrorist cells or even a single cell, that would be sufficient.”
Consequently, Soldatov argues, it will not be easy for Russian security services to guarantee the Olympics pass without incident. In that context, Soldatov also expresses bewilderment that the FSB officer put in overall charge of coordinating the security arrangements, Oleg Syromolotov, is a counterintelligence, rather than a counterinsurgency or counterterrorism, expert.
It should be noted that Umarov is not the only actor to have threatened to sabotage the Sochi Olympics. On December 27, hackers operating under the collective title Anonymous Caucasus uploaded a 2 1/2-minute video address to the Russian government declaring “large-scale cyber-warfare” under the slogan “Pay-back for Sochi.” The speaker accuses the Russian authorities of inhumanity in staging the Olympics on the ancestral homeland of the Circassian people, hundreds of thousands of whom perished fighting tsarist Russia’s expansion into the Caucasus in the 19th century. He affirms that “we support all the peoples of the Caucasus against the enemy of our people and the enemies of Islam -- Russia. Stop your activities on the territory of Sochi, and we will stop ours.... We shall try to destroy you, we shall try to achieve our aim, and you will not be able to stop us.”
Anonymous Caucasus succeeded three months ago in temporarily disabling the websites of Sberbank and the Bank of Russia.
Meanwhile, just 50 percent of Chechens believe that Umarov’s statement was indeed motivated by resentment at Moscow’s choice as the venue for the 2014 Olympics of the ancestral homeland of the Circassians. In a poll launched in mid-December by RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service, 10.5 percent of respondents attributed Umarov’s statement to the need to remind people he still exists, 7.9 percent to the belief that if he issues such threats, people will believe he is still a force to be reckoned with, and just 5.9 percent to the belief that he could force Russia to backtrack over the venue.