Russian security forces have launched a massive manhunt for at least four potential suicide bombers who are preparing to launch terrorist attacks, including a frantic search for one "black widow" who may have already infiltrated the "ring of steel" security zone around the site of the upcoming Sochi Olympic Winter Games.
The frenzy of police activity, and the accompanying media storm, could be mainly the product of jitters among security forces as the opening day of the Games draws closer. But experts say the detailed nature of the reports are cause for serious concern, and that the danger posed by loosely organized underground networks of north Caucasus Islamist militants, who have pledged to target the Olympics, should not be underestimated.
Police are circulating posters showing a hijab-clad woman who is identified as Ruzana Ibragimova, also known as Salima, said to be the widow of an Islamic militant killed by Russian security forces last year. She has reportedly vowed to take revenge for her husband's death by becoming a "shakhid," or martyr – which, in Russia, has often meant strapping on a suicide vest and killing civilians. According to the semi-official BlogSochi.ru, Salima was recently spotted on a street in downtown Sochi, and police are now urgently combing the city's hotels for any sign of her.
"It is possible the terrorists may use ordinary clothing ... which allow them not to stand out from surrounding people and to be able to infiltrate into places with mass gatherings without hindrance," NBC quotes a police notice as warning local inhabitants.
The alert comes on the heels of a videotaped threat posted on an extremist website Sunday by an allegedly Iraq-based group called Ansar al-Sunna, warning of terrorist attacks if the Sochi Olympics are not canceled. In the video, apparently made last month, two rifle-wielding men, identified as Suleiman and Abdul Rakhman, are described as the two suicide bombers who carried out the bloody pre-New Year's strikes on a Volgograd train station and trolleybus that killed 34 people.
"We've prepared a present for you and all tourists who come [to Sochi]," the video says. "If you will hold the Olympics, you'll get a present from us for the Muslim blood that's been spilled."
The video was posted by Vilayat Daghestan, which often publicizes messages from militant groups in the insurgency-wracked Caucasus republic of Dagestan, and it is not clear whether the two alleged suicide bombers – who spoke in Russian – actually had any connection with the Iraqi jihadi group.
Russia's official Anti-Terrorist Committee said Monday that it was studying the video.
"The threat looks quite serious. We have a detailed description, photo, and name" of the still-at-large Ms. Ibragimova, says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru, an online journal devoted to security issues. He says that an official letter about Ibragimova from the FSB security service to the Sochi police department, published by BlogSochi.ru, appears to be "completely genuine."
As for all the media leaks, which are not typical of Russia's secretive security services, Mr. Soldatov says that discipline may be breaking down under the strain of recent weeks, with some departments trying to demonstrate that they are on top of the problems.
"All this system of media control tends to work under normal conditions. But in a crisis – and this is a crisis situation – many agencies feel themselves under intense pressure to show performance. Under these circumstances, they prove to be not so skilful at handling the press," he says.
Another example occurred last week, when Chechnya's pro-Moscow strongman Ramzan Kadyrov boasted on his Instagram account that his agents have killed the Chechen insurgent leader Doku Umarov, a claim that was met with deafening silence from Russian security headquarters in Moscow.
In an interview with international media last week, President Vladimir Putin pledged that the Sochi Games will be safe. "We do everything with a clear understanding of the operational situation developing around Sochi and in the region as a whole; we have a perfect understanding of what it is, what is that threat, how to stop it, how to combat it.... If we allow ourselves to show weakness, to show our fear, it means we will help the terrorists achieve their goals," he said.
But the US State Department has issued a special travel alert for visitors to the forthcoming Sochi Games, specifically warning that terrorism remains a serious threat.
And the Pentagon announced Monday that it is sending "air and naval assets," including two warships, to the region. Experts say the key purpose would be to evacuate US citizens from Sochi in case of any emergency.
The warships will be on hand "for all manner of contingencies in support of – and in consultation with – the Russian government," the Pentagon statement said.