Sochi terror threat: US concerns focus on region outside 'ring of steel'

Russian officials are calling Sochi 'the most secure venue ... on the planet,' but a top US counterterrorism official says there's 'substantial potential' for an attack in the city's outskirts.

Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters
A Russian traffic police officer patrols a road in Sochi, January 30, 2014. Sochi will host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games from February 7 to February 23.

By the time the Winter Olympics get under way next week, Sochi – the Russian resort town on the Black Sea where the Games will take place – will be about the most secure place on Earth.

But it’s the surrounding terrorism-plagued regions that are likely to pose the biggest threat of disruption and violence aimed at the Games, security experts say.

“The biggest issue, from my perspective, is not the Games themselves, the venues themselves, there is extensive security at … the sites of the events,” said Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, in testimony Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The greater threat is to softer targets in the greater Sochi area in the outskirts beyond Sochi,” he added, “where there is a substantial potential for a terrorist attack.”

And a terrorist attack almost anywhere in Russia over the two weeks of the Winter Olympics – but especially anything that occurs near Sochi, suggesting Islamist extremists have succeeded in their pledge to give Russia’s tens of thousands of foreign visitors a “surprise” – would spoil Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dream of pulling off a world-class, glitch-free, and secure event, other regional experts add.

Russian officials appear to be mindful of this. On Thursday – a day after Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Games organizing committee, declared Sochi to be “the most secure venue at the moment on the planet” – Russia’s Anti-Terrorism Committee announced it had arrested two suspected participants in two deadly bombings last month in the city of Volgograd.

It was the Volgograd bombings, and subsequent Russian concerns about “black widow” suicide bombers who might have penetrated the Sochi security cordon, that set off global worries about the Games and doubts about the International Olympic Committee’s decision to locate the Games in a terrorist hotbed.

Volgograd is about 400 miles northeast of Sochi.

The anti-terrorism officials also identified two suicide bombers involved in the attacks that left 34 people dead, and said the bombings were carried out by a militant group from Dagestan, a conflict-torn region about 350 miles southeast of Sochi on the Caspian Sea.

The Olympic torch was carried through Dagestan this week without incident, and Alexei Lavrishchev, a senior Federal Security Service officer, said at a news conference in Sochi Thursday that “the current situation in Dagestan is under control.”

What worries US officials like Mr. Olsen is that terrorists who have pledged to act could be waiting for the Games to get under way – and to take advantage of the intense focus of Russian security resources on Sochi to conduct attacks outside the so-called “ring of steel,” the security cordon ringing the Sochi Games.

Also at Wednesday’s Senate hearing, FBI Director James Comey told the committee that Sochi security “remains a big focus” of his agency.

Cooperation between the FBI and its Russian equivalent, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, “has been steadily improving,” he said, with “exchanges at all levels” expanding – in particular as the two services prepare for the Sochi Games.

The FBI has said it will have about three dozen agents in Sochi before and during the Games, but that number is lower than the Bureau’s presence in either the Beijing or London Games – reflecting, some analysts have speculated, a continuing low degree of trust between the two countries.

Russian authorities in and around Sochi continue to watch for the so-called “black widows,” women who have been trained to carry out suicide bombings as a means of avenging the death of an Islamist militant husband – or other male relation – at the hands of Russian security forces.

The Russians have good reason to be especially concerned about the “black widows,” according to Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University in Washington. He notes that women have played prominent roles in numerous terrorist attacks in Russia related to the conflicts in Chechnya and throughout the Caucasus.

Women participated in most of the high-profile attacks in Russia of the last decade, including suicide bombings in the Moscow subway, and two deadly sieges: of a Moscow movie theater in 2002, and then of a school in Beslan, in the North Caucasus, in 2004, where more than 380 people died.

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