In two days, the sleepy subtropical resort of Sochi, which lies on the shores of the Black Sea, will turn into a center of international interest as the 2014 Winter Olympic Games kick off. Its value as a sporting event notwithstanding, the media buildup toward these Olympics is apparently focused on a completely different question: Will the Dagestan-based jihadi group manage to pull off an attack during the games?
Sochi borders with the autonomous Caucasian republics, a hotbed of radical Islamist insurgency that emerged from the national separatist movement of the 1990s. Islamist militants in the Caucasus region are operating under the auspices of the Caucasus Emirate, a self-proclaimed virtual state entity declared in 2007 by Doku Umarov, who commandeered the position of Emir (leader) of the state. He is in fact sitting at the top of a pyramid of local jihadi units that have pledged an oath to him personally and operate at various levels of subjugation to his authority. Umarov’s militants are responsible for some of the most ruthless terrorist attacks against Russian civilians and strategic interests, the attack on Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport for example. Undoubtedly the veteran Chechen fighter earned the title ‘the Russian Bin Laden’ fair and square.
Umarov and his militias are now eying the Sochi Olympics. In a video speech posted by the group’s media arm on YouTube early in July 2013, the Emir threatened that the Caucasus Emirate would stage bloody attacks and invest every effort possible into preventing the peaceful progression of the games, in revenge for Russia’s atrocities against the inhabitants of the Caucasus.
And what revenge that could be! If there is one thing that can really rattle the nerves of Russian President Vladimir Putin these days, it is to see his megalomaniac project overshadowed by security mayhem. Already facing public criticism over accusations of corruption and the anti-democratic path that Russia is heading towards under his leadership, a terrorist attack during the games is liable to turn the tables on what is supposed to be Putin’s greatest show of force to the world.
Two consecutive suicide bombings in the city of Volgograd, about 400 miles northeast of Sochi, at the end of December were a warning from Umarov’s troops that they mean business and possess the operational capability to embarrass Putin on his big day. Three weeks after the attacks, the group released a video on YouTube where it threatened that it has prepared “surprises” for the Russian authorities and any tourists visiting the upcoming Olympics.
The increased security alert has already managed to bring about some friction between Russia and the U.S., as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said late January that he had offered American assistance with security at the games to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu. Mr. Shoigu politely declined the offer, but a Pentagon spokesperson had already announced the deployment of naval ships to the Black Sea. In addition, the U.S. Olympic Committee issued a memo warning the athletes of Team USA not to wear their team colors too prominently outside official Olympic venues. In an attempt to ease tensions, President Barack Obama hurried to Putin’s aid at the end of last week by stating in an interview to CNN that the Sochi games will be safe. Such statements and public gestures may appear very generous at first sight, but I think that if we take a deeper look into the situation, there is a big loss of face for Putin here. Has security in Russia deteriorated so much and has faith in the ability of the Russian defense forces to quell this threat declined to such a degree that they both need the approving stamp of an American president? Could you imagine a situation where Putin would be required to provide similarly for Russians traveling to the U.S.?
This all leads to the conclusion that the question of whether or not the Caucasus Emirate will manage to stage a terrorist attack during the Winter Olympics has become irrelevant. Before the games even begin, Umarov’s threats have succeeded in generating anxiety to the level of real panic, which has fueled an international debate over the security situation in Russia and the authorities’ ability to guarantee the safety of the visiting athletes and fans. This arch-terrorist has positioned himself as a geostrategic player whose presence is definitely troubling the sleep of one of the most powerful world leaders. That alone is a victory for Doku Umarov.