Russian security forces are digging for – and reportedly finding – terrorist plots to disrupt the upcoming Sochi Winter Games in regions that abut the Olympic venue. Much of the focus is on the country's insurgency-wracked northern Caucasus.
The scope of reported police activity is immense, underscoring authorities' jitters in the wake of two devastating attacks in the southern transport hub of Volgograd that killed 34 people just before the New Year.
Though the Olympic city of Sochi itself has been transformed into a fortress and virtually cut off from regular connections with the world by a massive security operation that began this week, much of the surrounding area seethes with potential threats.
The most bizarre case revolves around the discovery Wednesday of six dead bodies stashed in four cars – three of them rigged with explosives – in various locations near the spa town of Pyatigorsk, very close to the north Caucasus republic of Karachay-Cherkessia. Only one of the bombs exploded, harming no one, and the other two were defused by bomb squads, reports say.
In a statement, the Kremlin's Investigative Committee, Russia's highest law enforcement body, said it has not yet established any motive for the murders, whose victims included two unlicensed taxi drivers and a furniture assembler. That implies that the region's local criminal gangs, whose activities are sometimes difficult to distinguish from terrorism, might be to blame.
But Pyatigorsk was also the scene of a terrorist car bombing, which went virtually unreported in the Western media, that killed two people outside the town's police station on Dec. 27, just two days before the first Volgograd bombing left 17 dead in that city's train station. Investigators now suggest strong reasons to link the Volgograd blasts with the earlier one in Pyatigorsk.
In Astrakhan, a region just to the northeast of the troubled Caucasus zone, police are rounding up scores of wives and widows of known Islamist insurgents. They fear the women might become "black widow" suicide bombers, according to the Moscow pro-government daily Izvestia.
As many as 60 women are under suspicion in Astrakhan alone, the paper reports. A powerful pipe bomb, packed with shrapnel, was reportedly found in the dacha [country cottage] of one, Viktoria Volkova, the widow of an ethnic Russian-turned-Islamist-rebel killed by security forces in nearby Dagestan in 2012. Ms. Volkova, who is under arrest, reportedly told police that the "infernal device" had belonged to her husband and she knew nothing of it.
"This chasing after widows strikes me as nonsense," says Alexei Kondaurov, a former KGB general-turned-opposition-politician.
"One has the impression that the specialists are simply not in control of the situation. Look at what's going on in Dagestan. Something bad is happening there almost every day, yet nobody seems to notice.... Our security services still have some good people working for them, but they should have been reformed 20 years ago. They have the old Soviet mentality, and seem incapable of adapting to the challenges of today," he says.
Meanwhile in Dagestan, which appears to have fallen off even the Russian media's map, terrorist violence continues unabated. According to the website Caucasian Knot, an independent news service founded by the Russian human rights organization Memorial and which collects reports by local journalists, at least three major attacks have occurred since the pre-New Year's bombings in Volgograd. On Dec 30, a blast killed two policemen in Khasavyurt; a car bomb killed a deputy public prosecutor in Buynaksk the next day; and an explosion destroyed a shop in Khasavyurt after its owner reportedly refused to cooperate with Islamist insurgents.
Caucasian Knot estimates that at least 32 major terrorist blasts, few of them reported in the media, took place around the north Caucasus region in the "pre-Sochi" year of 2013.