Russia has erected a “ring of steel” and the U.S. military is planning for evacuations, but the fact remains that Sochi, the site of next month’s Winter Olympics, is within striking distance of Dagestan and Chechnya — volatile regions that form a caldron for Islamic militants.
Terrorists already have demonstrated that they can hit targets in Moscow and last month sent two suicide bombers to the transportation hub of Volgograd. Their explosions killed at least 34 commuters at a rail station and on a bus.
“Sochi is easily the most threatened Olympic Games since Munich in 1972,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University who has advised the CIA and U.S. military on counterterrorism.
The Olympics “will take place in a city bordering an already restive region and in a country where intelligence and security liaison with the West is problematical,” Mr. Hoffman said. “Even if the games themselves are secured, the threat of terrorism in other parts of Russia and the Caucasus cannot be dismissed, given last month’s back-to-back attacks in Volgograd. The potential, therefore, for terrorist incidents elsewhere to disrupt or otherwise mar the games cannot be prudently dismissed.”
On Monday, police in Sochi said they were searching for at least one “black widow,” a female suicide bomber who might have slipped past security surrounding the site of the Olympics, which open Feb. 7. Identified on wanted posters as Ruzanna Ibragimova, she is a 22-year-old widow whose militant husband was killed in a gunfight with police in Dagestan last year.
Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin is vowing that terrorism will not happen in Sochi, a Black Sea resort about 300 miles west of Dagestan and Chechnya. The former KGB officer has deployed 40,000 police and special operations troops to keep out any invaders.
His forces have established a wide security perimeter — the “ring of steel” — that blocks roads, train stations, the airport and routes out of the Caucasus Mountains.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon will deploy at least two warships and several transport aircraft in the Black Sea near Sochi to respond to any terrorist attack and help evacuate American athletes and officials, top U.S. officials said Monday. The State Department will take the lead if evacuations become necessary.
The ships will have helicopters that could fly Americans out of the country. Aircraft on standby in Germany could be at Sochi in about two hours, if needed.
Mr. Putin has distanced himself from U.S. intelligence and military support and said Russian authorities must approve any private security for athletes.
“We have adequate means available to us through the federal security service, the Interior Ministry, armed forces units that will be involved in providing security on the water and in the air,” he said. “If necessary, all those tools will be activated.”
In recent weeks, Mr. Putin has put his special operations prowess on display conducting sweeps of known militant areas.
The pro-Putin strongman of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, last week announced the death of leading Chechen militant Doku Umarov, whose Caucasus Emirate has threatened the games. The “black widow” — Ms. Ibragimova — is suspected to be linked to the Islamist group.
“The threats as I see them are definitely from the Chechen rebels and like-minded jihadis that have joined them, including those that will claim allegiance to al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood,” said former CIA officer Bart Bechtel. “I am of the mind that if there are any terrorist attacks during the games, they will occur in locations that are not as well protected. Because there, terrorists will want broad media coverage to distract and detract from the games, larger cities would be my guess. Airports and train stations, subways and major hotels are all potential targets.”