NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
U.S. national security and law enforcement agencies monitoring security at the Sochi Olympics say the southern Russian city faces a high risk of an Islamist terrorism attack. One message from a security analyst to those considering attending the Winter Games: Don’t go.
The Olympics are scheduled for Feb. 6-23 in Sochi, the port city on the western shore of the Black Sea and about 25 miles north of the Russian border with Georgia.
The Islamist threat, however, emanates from separatist terrorists based in the nearby North Caucasus region, which includes the ethnic enclave of Chechnya.
Two recent suicide bombings in the Russian city of Volgograd, about 400 miles north of Sochi, are being viewed as a “taste” of bad things to come in Sochi. The Dec. 29 blast at a rail station and the Dec. 30 explosion on a bus killed a total of 34 people and injured scores.
Russian authorities say the main suspect is Chechen rebel warlord Doku Umarov, head of the Caucasus Emirate. Chechen Islamists are among the many groups fighting in Syria with al Qaeda-linked rebels. The flow of insurgents has heightened concerns that terrorists in Syria will return to Europe and the United States to conduct jihadist attacks.
Russia has mobilized tens of thousands of troops and security officials in an effort to secure the Games. Moscow has created a 1,500-mile security cordon around Sochi in a bid to prevent infiltration by terrorists.
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But U.S. officials said the lack of infrastructure in Sochi, specifically roadways, has made the city vulnerable to a mass attack that could disrupt the Games.
Sochi’s 1,384 miles of roads are not interconnected, making detours difficult in the aftermath of a car bombing or even a vehicular accident.
The mountainous road network is not designed to handle a large volume of traffic, and choke points would make ideal targets for attacks and other attempts at disruption.
The 11 hospitals in the region all are on difficult-to-access routes.
The State Department issued a travel alert Friday warning Americans attending the games to “remain attentive” to threats.
“In July 2013, Doku Umarov, the head of the Caucasus Emirate released a video message rescinding prior directions not to attack civilians and calling for attacks on the Winter Olympics in Sochi,” the notice states. “The Caucasus Emirate is responsible for many of the aforementioned attacks. The group has targeted civilians, as indirect supporters of the government, including through attacks on a ski resort, metro system, high-speed rail, airport, and a theater.”
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Americans who do attend are advised to register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which allows the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to better assist travelers in emergencies. Enrollment can be conducted free online at step.state.gov/step/.
RUSSIA’S EXIT PLAN FOR ASSAD
Western and Persian Gulf intelligence sources told the Paris-based newsletter Intelligence Online recently that Moscow’s foreign intelligence service, known by the acronym SVR, has plans to rescue Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose autocratic regime is battling a rebel network of al Qaeda-linked terrorists and pro-Western rebels.
The SVR has drawn up an evacuation plan for Mr. Assad if the military situation reaches the point where the regime cannot survive.
According to the newsletter, the SVR plan calls for taking Mr. Assad and his family to Russia. Currently in Russia is Mohamed Makhlouf, Mr. Assad’s maternal uncle and father of Hafez Makhlouf, vice director or Syrian state security.
The SVR plan calls for the Assads initially to travel to the Makhlouf family farm in the Yaafour region on the border with Lebanon, which is said to have secure underground bunkers.
“The SVR, which has a strong presence in Syria, will then see to it that the president and his family are transferred to the Russian naval base in Tartus, some 350 kilometers away, by helicopter,” the newsletter reported Nov. 9.
“To avoid being shot at by rebel rockets on the way, the air convoy will fly over Lebanon where its security will be guaranteed by Hezbollah units positioned along the border. Once they have reached Tartus, the Assads will be evacuated on board the Novocherkassk or the Minsk, two Russian helicopter carriers that are currently cruising the Mediterranean.”
CHINESE WARNING A DAY LATE
U.S. officials told Inside the Ring that one reason Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued a harsh verbal attack on China for its role in the near collision of a U.S. warship and Chinese navy vessel was that the Chinese government lied about having issued a no-sail warning before the Dec. 5 incident near Hainan island.
Mr. Hagel called the encounter between the guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens and a Chinese amphibious ship that was part of a nearby aircraft carrier group “unhelpful” and “irresponsible.”
“That action by the Chinese, cutting in front of their ship, 100 yards out in front of the Cowpens, was not a responsible action,” Mr. Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon several days after the incident.
According to U.S. officials, Chinese officials and state-run media accounts blamed the United States for the near collision, claiming that Chinese authorities had issued a no-sail warning to all ships not to transit in the area where China’s refurbished Soviet aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and other warships were conducting exercises.
The Chinese Maritime Safety Administration did not issue notices to ships to avoid the Hainan security zone until Dec. 6 — a day after the near collision and three days after naval maneuvers had begun. The warning stated that Chinese navy ships would be conducting training from Dec. 3 to Jan. 3 and that foreign ships must not sail too close.
Still, Chinese state-run propaganda outlets criticized the United States for not heeding the unissued warning.
The official Xinhua News Agency stated Dec. 18 that “even before the navy training began, the Chinese maritime authority posted a navigation notice on its website, and the U.S. warship intentionally carried on with its surveillance of China’s aircraft carrier and triggered the confrontation.”
The official People’s Liberation Army newspaper also blamed the U.S. for not observing the warning.
NUKE GRAPHICS DELETED
Under pressure from the United States over a report outlining planned nuclear attacks on U.S. cities, the state-run newspaper Global Times recently deleted two graphics showing attacks on the Pacific Northwest and Los Angeles.
The Oct. 30 article in the Communist Party-affiliated newspaper known for its anti-U.S. stance carried the headline, “China Has Undersea Strategic Nuclear Deterrent Against United States for the First Time.”
The report included numerous photos of submarines and their missiles along with missile flight paths for targeting the East and West coasts of the U.S. The two most controversial graphics showed nuclear strikes on Seattle and Los Angeles.
The one on Seattle revealed what the article said was the “overall destructive assessment” of Chinese nuclear missiles hitting the city, including a radioactive debris plume spreading east to Chicago. The article said the attack would kill up to 12 million Americans.
The second graphic showed a similar assessment on Los Angeles. “The black circles are the area directly destroyed by five nuclear warheads,” the article said.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert played down the Chinese nuclear threat when asked about the Global Times report at a conference in California.
“For a submarine-launched ballistic missile to be effective, it has to be accurate, and you have to be stealthy and survivable, and I’ll leave it at that,” Adm. Greenert said Nov. 16.
U.S. nuclear missile submarines remain powerful deterrents and are tested frequently, he added.
• Contact Bill Gertz at @BillGertz.