US unease rises amid 'black widow' manhunt in Sochi, terrorism threats

Security concerns for the Olympics in Sochi are on the rise among US officials, as video threats surface and the Russians hunt for suspected 'black widow' suicide bombers. US military is forced into 'contingency planning.'

Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters
Security guards patrol at the Olympic Park near Sochi, Russia, Jan. 16. US officials are becoming more concerned about security during the Olympics as video threats surface and the Russians hunt for suspected 'black widow' suicide bombers.

Amid signs that security for the forthcoming Olympic Games in Sochi is not as buttoned down as Russia claims, the United States is redoubling offers of on-the-ground help to stave off any terrorist attacks. The Pentagon is also making independent preparations – including putting US ships and planes on standby in the Black Sea – to whisk Americans from the country if that becomes necessary.

The US moves point to a level of American discomfort with security surrounding the Games, though there's no sign that President Obama will cancel US participation. That concern has escalated as Russian security organizations revealed they are searching for three Muslim women – so-called "black widows" of men linked to Islamist militant groups in the restive Caucasus region – who may be intent on carrying out suicide bomb attacks. 

Any such attack would likely be intended to humiliate Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has publicly insisted that his country is in command of the situation. And the threat of attack is not a remote one, security experts warn.

“The Olympics have become such a target-rich environment for terrorist groups,” says Juan Zarate, former deputy national security adviser for the George W. Bush administration from 2005 to 2009. “You have a real terrorist threat here.” 

Moreover, the FBI, reported to have two dozen agents on the ground for the Games, may not have all the information or access it usually does at Olympic venues. "The US government is probably not getting a lot [security] billets, [or] a lot of clearance to be on the ground at particular sites," Mr. Zarate added, in remarks Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) here. Ideally, FBI agents are cleared to scope out venues around the Olympic Village, where the athletes reside, and are "otherwise integrated into the security structure," he said.

On Sunday, US Rep. Michael McCaul (R) of Texas shared a similar concern. "Diplomatic Security Corps [of the State Department] says the cooperation's good.... But quite frankly, George, it could be a lot better," he told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos from Sochi, where he is assessing the security situation. "And that's one thing I want to press on while I'm here."

US officials also have hinted that the Russian government has not seemed inclined to avail itself of US offers of security assistance.

“The United States has offered its full support to the Russian government as it conducts security preparations for the Winter Olympics,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, confirmed in a statement Monday. For now the Pentagon is “conducting prudent planning and preparation should [a response] be required,” he added, noting that “there is no such requirement at this time.” 

Translation: The US military is being forced to do a lot of “contingency planning – to try to determine what happens in the worst-case scenario,” Zarate says.

For his part, Mr. Putin is stressing that a security “ring of steel” surrounds Sochi. Some 80,000 troops, drones, and missile defense systems are at the ready, and aggressive cybermonitoring is under way, he has said.

And, of course, there's the distinct possibility that most of the uncovered threats are hoaxes, says Andrew Kuchins, Russia and Eurasia program director at CSIS.

“You look at these guys, and they look a bit like Wayne and Garth in a 'Saturday Night Live' skit,” Mr. Kuchins says of one recent video threat. “I do wonder whether some of this is a hoax” dreamed up “in a dorm room at a university,” he adds. “I don’t want to take this lightly at all, but when I look at it, it is the first thought I had.” 

Officials note that two young men, one still a teenager, dreamed up last April's Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three and injured dozens. Thus, as the US military readies its ships and air assets for the Games, the State Department has issued a travel advisory for Americans headed to Sochi to see the competition in person. 

In the meantime, some athletes have been hiring private security firms to devise personalized evacuation plans.

“If someone believes that they should devise their own personal security plans, there is nothing wrong with that,” Putin told ABC News on Sunday. But he stressed that any such efforts must be under the control of Russian security services.

Even if the threat to the Games is somewhat exaggerated, the alleged terrorists have already succeeded by shifting the conversation from one about the attractions of sports competitions in a Russian resort town to one about instability within Russia and the failures of Putin, says Jeff Mankoff, Russia and Eurasia program deputy director at CSIS. 

Among many US officials, the greatest concern is the possibility of attacks on “soft targets” by militants from the Dagestan region near Chechnya, ethnic homeland of the two Boston bombers as well as of ambitious jihadists, Representative McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told ABC News. [Editor's note: The original paragraph was changed to correctly state the roots of the two brothers alleged to be the Boston bombers and to separate Dagestan from Chechnya.

“It’s more likely that the attacks would ... happen outside of the perimeter in more soft targets – transportation modes – if you will,” McCaul said. 

Many of the alleged terrorists are linked into the global jihadist movement, including the group Ansar al-Sunnah, which claims a connection with Al Qaeda, says Mr. Kuchins.

“Sochi is the holy grail for a jihadist terrorist to go after, so in a way we have the ultimate showdown. Putin has a lot riding on it – it’s a very juicy target,” he adds. “In American terms, it’s high noon at the OK Corral.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.