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The Risk of Terrorism at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics

Dana E. Brede

There is something astonishing and awe-inspiring about the summer and winter Olympics that enigmatically unites a global audience. I know that I will be watching and hoping that some of the athleticism will rub off on me just by watching on television—I can dream can’t I? All around the world people will watch in rapture and bated breath as the best athletes on the planet test their mental toughness and physical abilities to achieve honor, pride and, of course, medals for their homelands.

The Sochi Olympics will include over 6,000 athletes and team members from 85 countries1. Unfortunately for me, my great snowman making ability and enthusiasm for sledding with my kids will not afford me an opportunity to participate alongside such stellar athletes like Kelly Clark (snowboarder) or Gracie Gold (figure skater).

Addressing the General Assembly, the International Olympic Committee’s President, Dr. Thomas Bach, declared “the role of sport is always to build bridges, never walls. Sport stands for dialogue and understanding, which transcend all differences. Sport, and the Olympic Movement especially, understands the global diversity of cultures, societies and life designs as a source of richness. We never accuse or exclude anyone.” The Olympic Truce for the Sochi Games, officially entitled “Sport for peace and development: building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal”, was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on November 6, 2013 and named 121 countries as co-sponsors2.

Controversy has followed the choice in locale for the Olympics as Russia’s reputation hasn’t always included international accolades and positive criticism. “Peace” and “Harmony” aren’t exactly synonymous with Russia’s politics. Rather, scrutiny over the Kremlin’s incumbent leader overshadows the matters of post-Soviet Russia. Regardless of the controversy, the 2014 Olympics have provided Vladimir Putin with the opportunity to host a major international event as well as prove to the international community that he can effectively harmonize and align with international interests…albeit for a short while.

With the worldwide pressure on Putin right now the guy has to be well aware of the fact that his prestige and politics are at stake.

With all eyes cast in the direction of Sochi and the athletes, I cannot help but consider the threat (both real and perceived) of terrorism in and around Sochi. In my opinion, it would be conceivable for regional terrorist organizations to want or desire some of that spotlight—especially considering the history of the region. The international spotlight coupled with Russia’s already unstable political climate has me hoping that Putin has prepared for every scenario that could result in mass chaos. While military shakedowns in rebel neighborhoods have detained hundreds of suspects, Putin has not been able to suppress the looming fear of potential attacks that could disrupt the Olympics.

With the clock ticking for Opening Ceremonies, Putin has to better ease the world’s uncertainty and agitation in the wake of major incidents that have raised valid questions about Russia’s ability to thwart attacks.

In the past several weeks there have been two terrorist attacks that have killed over 32 people and injured dozens more in Stavropol and Volgograd, two major cities near Sochi. These attacks have shaken Russian security and illuminate a very real and tangible risk for the fans and athletes that will be venturing into the Olympic arena.

While no terrorist organization has claimed responsibility, leading analysts suspect that the attacks are directly linked to a pledge made by North Caucasus Islamist resistant leader and Chechen rebel, Doku Umarov, who vowed to disrupt the Olympics with “maximum force”. He is believed by authorities to be operating out of Dagestan.

Umarov, in a video statement in June of 2013 was quoted saying, “They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea.”

In denouncing the Sochi games as a defilement of the sacred ground of the area’s original inhabitants, the Circassians, he has not been shy about his hatred and contempt for Putin or the Sochi Olympics3.

While we all may have different levels of concern or consideration for terrorism in the region, I have a few questions/concerns that I hope will become clearer as we all approach February 7:

    1. While Russia has asserted that it is prepared to protect the fans and athletes participating in the games, what does the redistribution of police and military personnel from all over Russia mean for cities other than Sochi? Who is protecting the soft targets like shopping centers and metro-transit facilities?
    2. In the days and weeks leading up to the Winter Games how will Putin ease the looming fear of an attack? Let’s be honest—his ski trip to Sochi on January 3, did nothing to suppress concern over security. Below is a link where he can be seen on video and in photographs “testing” out the slopes. http://olympictalk.nbcsports.com/2014/01/03/vladimir-putin-skiing-sochi-olympics/
    3. Keeping the Boston Marathon in perspective—what are the chances of a lone-wolf attack slipping through the cracks in Sochi?
    4. More of a statement than a question…but I can’t help but consider Munich.

Have we forgotten about the Black September assault and assassination of the 1972 Israeli Olympic team? While hindsight is 20/20, the PLO launched and international campaign against Israelis in Europe leaving many indicators that a larger attack was coming. In the end, seventeen people lost their lives at the Munich Olympics, but beyond that, the world drew their attention to what motivated the Palestinian cause. Ultimately, the Munich Olympics provided a platform for the PLO to launch their political agenda. A short time later, Palestine became an internationally recognized state—mission accomplished!

Food for thought: Did the ends justify the means for Palestine?

Comparing the PLO and the insurgency in the Northern Caucasus may well be comparing apples to oranges but it does highlight the fact that even peaceful rhetoric and calls for non-violence cannot and will not deter people who wish to harm others in the name of political or religious oppression. The Northern Caucasus has been very vocal in its desire for an entirely Islamic state. History has a tendency to repeat itself—cliché I know—but if we learned anything from the PLO, perhaps, Russia with help from the international community could mitigate the growing tension via peaceful means before the situation spirals out of control.

If only words and rhetoric were enough?

I love everything about the Olympic Truce and what the United Nations stands for but I wish there was more that could be done to promote and encourage peace throughout Russia (and the rest of the international community for that matter) than words and promises.

Since world peace is elusive and nobody can guarantee security anywhere, all I can do is look forward to the Sochi Olympics, cheer for my homeland and hope for the best. If I were Putin, my promises for increased security would include soft targets. It is my fervent prayer that this year’s Olympics unite the world—if only for a few weeks.

About the Author: Dana Brede is an affiliate professor in the criminology department at Regis University. Her area of research and expertise is in criminology specifically within the field of international and domestic terrorism.

Contact Dana at dbrede@regis.edu if you would like to have certain topics as they relate to the international community discussed in her blog!

Contact an admissions advisor to learn more about the human behavior degree focus within the online Master of Science in Criminology program by requesting more information or calling 877-820-0581.

Work Cited

1 “Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee Presents Competition Schedule for Olympic Winter Games in Sochi,” XXII 2014 Olympic Winter Games, Sochi. (July 22, 2013). Retrieved on January 14, 2014 from http://www.sochi2014.com/en/media/news/69939/

2 N.A., (November 6, 2013). The UN General Assembly adopts the resolution of the Olympic Truce for Sochi 2014 Games. International Olympic Truce Centre. Retrieved January 14, 2014 from http://www.olympictruce.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=53:un-general-assebly-adopts-resolution-on-olympic-truce-for-sochi-games&Itemid=289&lang=en

3 Englund, Will and Kathy Lally. (December 30, 2013). A second bombing in Russia shows security threat ahead of Winter Olympics. Washington Post. Retrieved on January 14, 2014 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/second-bombing-in-two-days-hits-volgograd-in-southern-russia-32-dead-in-the-two-attacks/2013/12/30/69ae1c1c-7140-11e3-8def-a33011492df2_story.html