The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are just a week away—but as the excitement builds worldwide, the threat of terrorism looms over the event, potentially overshadowing the competition that boasts so much international pride.
Recent reports draw attention to Russia’s history of battling terrorist attacks, particularly with the Caucasus Emirate, and two recent suicide bombings in the country have only exacerbated the situation. Russian security forces are also reportedly searching for “black widows,” women linked to Islamist militant groups suspected of planning insurgent activities.
To address the mounting concerns, Director of George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute Frank Cilluffo convened the panel discussion “Terrorist Threats and Risks to the Sochi Winter Olympics” to analyze the issues Russia faces and what the U.S. can do to protect its athletes and spectators. Tom Ridge, the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush following 9/11, joined the conversation, along with Matt Bettenhausen, vice president and chief security officer of AEG Worldwide, and Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies Program.
“It’s unfortunate that all the stories aren’t about the hard work that the athletes have put in to be able to compete in these games—unfortunately, there are some legitimate and sobering security concerns,” Mr. Cilluffo said in opening remarks.
Mr. Ridge, who helped organize the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City just five months after 9/11, said a major challenge in Sochi has been Russia’s unwillingness to share information with countries participating in the event. Russia has also been uncooperative about using best practices and technology from other countries, which might lead to difficulty incorporating additional security and operational measures.
“I knew a lot that was going on in 2002,” Mr. Ridge said. “I don’t know much more than what I read in regard to Sochi.”
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has described a “ring of steel” he’s created around the Olympic villages and venues, which includes 100,000 security personnel, ground-to-air missile systems and drones and attack helicopters. Mr. Ridge said he believes the Russian government has done its best to create an “impenetrable” security system in Sochi—but other areas could be attacked. Because Sochi is in an isolated part of the country, transportation routes or rails connecting to the well-protected city will be crowded, creating vulnerable targets.
“If I’m thinking like a terrorist and I want to make a statement at the games, I don’t have to do it in Sochi. The villages and venues are in good shape, but Russia is a big country,” Mr. Ridge said.
The Russian government must also ensure all personnel are safely accredited to prevent terrorists from sneaking into the event. Mr. Bettenhausen explained that it is important to secure not just employees hired to work at the competitions but those in housing, hotel and other facilities.
Mr. Cilluffo pointed out that like in the Boston Marathon bombings, there is the possibility of “homegrown” terrorists—insurgents who hold legitimate passports and have received training in Syria or other neighboring countries. The panelists explained that terrorists likely have had time to prepare, describing a type of “Darwinism” that occurs: The longer terrorists survive, the more time they have to sharpen their abilities to be evasive and operationalize attacks.
Dr. Hoffman described the violence of the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, during which 11 Israeli athletes and coaches and a German policeman were killed by members of a Palestinian terrorist organization. Like in Munich, an attack in Sochi would puncture the pride of an entire country—and a leader who is already reviled by some Russians after coming into power during the second Chechen War. Russia may also face the rancor of organizations opposing Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whom the country has supported as an ally.
Mr. Ridge added that the country has been battling fundamentalist organizations for a long time, but the glamor of the Olympics heightens their visibility. He said that because terrorists have put threats on people’s minds, they have already succeeded in their goal of creating a climate of fear and anxiety.
“The terrorists already begin to win the battle because we’re having this conversation,” Mr. Ridge said.
The panelists agreed that terrorism isn’t the only threat in Sochi—the city must be prepared for hazards and natural disasters, including earthquakes, floods and avalanches. Every possible crisis must have a contingency plan in place.
Despite the threats, each of the panelists agreed that if they had the opportunity to attend the event, they would take security measures—like noting the locations of U.S. embassies—and go.
“Is there a risk? Yes. Does it seem to be higher than at other Olympics? It does. There is a risk, but frankly, if I enjoyed winter sports, I’d go,” Mr. Ridge said.