- - Tuesday, October 22, 2013

MOSCOW — A suicide bombing by an Islamic militant in southern Russia this week has raised the specter of terrorist attacks during the Winter Olympics in February in Sochi, a Black Sea resort about 400 miles south of the bomb attack.

Six people were killed and more than 30 wounded Monday when a female suicide bomber detonated an explosive device filled with metal objects on a passenger bus in the city of Volgograd.

“We can draw the conclusion that this is just the start of a planned chain of terror attacks,” Russian security analyst Ruslan Milchenko told state-run media.

Investigators say the bomber — Naida Asiyalova, 30 — was from Russia’s volatile Dagestan republic in the mainly Muslim North Caucasus region, just across the mountains from Sochi. She was married to Dmitry Sokolov, an ethnic Russian who joined jihadists in Dagestan and became an adept bomb-maker. He has been a fugitive since mid-2012.

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Russian-born U.S. citizens accused of setting off bombs at the Boston Marathon in April, hailed from Dagestan. In addition, the North Caucasus is home to Chechnya, where Moscow fought two wars against separatists in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, radicalizing a generation of Muslim youths in the process.

Militants fighting to establish an Islamic state in the region have long vowed to target the Winter Olympics, which are seen as President Vladimir Putin’s pet project. With an estimated cost of $50 billion, the Sochi Olympics are set to be the most expensive ever. Russia also hosted the Olympics in 1980, in Moscow.

This summer, the State Department cautioned Americans planning to attend the Sochi Games about the risk of terrorist attacks, noting that the leader of the Caucasus Emirate — the umbrella under which jihadist factions fight in the area — had called for a terrorism campaign to disrupt events.

“We know that they plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors on the bones of many, many dead Muslims,” Doku Umarov, the emirate’s fugitive leader, said in a video released July 3.

He called on his followers “to use maximum force on the path of Allah to disrupt this Satanic dancing on the bones of our ancestors.”

The State Department noted that the games would be held “within a hardened security perimeter” and that “the likelihood of a successful terrorist attack at an Olympic venue during the Games is low.”

But it warned that terrorists might try to strike elsewhere in Russia during the games to capitalize on the media attention.

Patrick Sandusky, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee, offered a comment Tuesday:

“Every day of the year, Team USA athletes are competing all over the world and their safety and well-being is always our highest priority. No matter the event — whether it is the Olympic, Paralympic or Pan American Games — or the city — from Beijing, to Vancouver, to Guadalajara, to London, and in a little over 100 days, to Sochi — we work diligently to keep our athletes safe.

“As with previous events, for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi, we will work closely with the International Olympic Committee, the organizing committee, our State Department and all other relevant government and law enforcement agencies to ensure that our entire delegation is safe while in Russia.”

In in a 2007 speech to the International Olympic Committee that is widely credited with securing the sporting event for Russia, Mr. Putin offered a “national pledge” that Sochi would be safe.

That pledge looks set to face a significant test: The games are to be held on the front line of Russia’s fight against a low-level, persistent Islamic insurgency that has defied Kremlin attempts to bring a lasting peace to the region.

The insurgency leader Umarov has claimed responsibility for a 2010 suicide bombing on the Moscow subway that killed 40 people and another at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in 2011 that left 37 dead. He then announced a moratorium on attacks on civilian targets as mass protests against Mr. Putin began in the winter of 2011.

However, Russian authorities said in May that they foiled a plot by Umarov to attack the Sochi Games, which will host about 2,500 athletes from dozens of countries from Feb. 7 to Feb. 23.

Federal Security Service (FSB) agents announced that they had detained three suspected militants and seized a weapons cache in Abkhazia, the Georgian breakaway republic just across the border from Sochi. Investigators said the extremists had been planning to move the weapons, which included surface-to-air missiles and grenades, to Sochi to carry out attacks during the Winter Olympics.

Authorities plan to secure Sochi by using drones, robotic bomb detectors and high-speed patrol boats to sweep the Black Sea coastline. Tens of thousands of soldiers and police officers also will be deployed in the city during the games.

“There will be so-called controlled and forbidden zones in and around Sochi,” an FSB official said this year.

“The Sochi security operation is a real priority for the authorities,” said Andrei Soldatov, a leading analyst on Russia’s security services. “But the question is, how adequately can they respond to the challenge?”

Mr. Soldatov said he believes the FSB and the Interior Ministry would attempt to “imitate the approach used by the Soviet secret services at the 1980 Moscow Olympics but with the addition of cutting-edge surveillance technology.”

“The idea is the same,” he said. “Everything should be under complete control, with any unauthorized activities prevented by all means.”

But southern Russia has had three suicide bombings in recent months, and Soldatov expressed uncertainty that authorities will be able to prevent all attacks on the games. He also suggested that this week’s blast in Volgograd could have been a “diversionary” action ahead of a more spectacular attack.

The International Olympic Committee has sought to calm fears about an attack on the Sochi Games.

“Security at the games is the responsibility of the local authorities, and we have no doubt that the Russians will be up to the task,” the IOC said this year.

The Olympics were targeted by militants at the 1972 Munich Games. Members of the Palestinian group Black September killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches in the Olympic Village.

Shaun Waterman in Washington contributed to this report.

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