Despite the relative proximity of Sochi to the North Caucasus, it is unlikely that Doku Umarov’s ‘Caucasus Emirate’ could plan and execute the major terrorist act at the Olympics. However, given the size of the Russian Federation and the inevitable concentration of security on the Olympic sites, one cannot rule out an attempt elsewhere in Russia while the eyes of the world are on Sochi.
Since the tragic terrorist attacks at the Munich Olympiad of 1972 it has been accepted that the highest level of security is necessary at all subsequent staging of the Olympics. This now applies to both summer and winter Olympiads (since the Salt Lake City games of 2002, which took place within a few months of 9/11). There was genuine relief in the United Kingdom that the London games of 2012 passed by without any serious terrorist incidents. This was achieved, however, through scrupulously comprehensive domestic measures combined with wide cooperation with the counter-terrorist authorities of other countries. That high-profile sporting events remain particularly vulnerable to terrorist attack was demonstrated, nonetheless, in the Boston Marathon bombings of April 2013.
Despite the relative proximity of Sochi to the North Caucasus, the source of so much of the terrorist activity in Russia in the past twenty years, it is unlikely that Doku Umarov’s ‘Caucasus Emirate’ could plan and execute the major terrorist act at the Olympics that he threatened in his video of July 2013. However, given the size of the Russian Federation, the geographical spread of its Caucasian diaspora and the inevitable concentration of security on the Olympic sites, one cannot rule out an attempt elsewhere in Russia while the eyes of the world are on Sochi, especially given the proven lapses of local security forces prior to previous terrorist attacks in Russia since the Moscow theatre siege of 2002. The potency of the threat is evident from the attacks in Volgograd in December when we were warned of a ‘present for all tourists who come over’ for the Olympics. Umarov, in his earlier video, having rescinded the ban on attacks on civilians.
Although Syria was mentioned as one of the reasons for the Volgograd bombings by its alleged perpetrators and despite evidence of numerous radical Muslims from Russia fighting on the jihadist side in the Syrian civil war, Russia’s critical role in that conflict should not, of itself, exacerbate the security situation in Sochi. Syria, however, is a major theatre of operations for the most militant jihadist groups worldwide and Sochi does present an opportunity for them to exploit their grievances about the misery of their co-religionists there.
As for the Circassians, one of the peoples indigenous to the Black Sea region around Sochi, the ‘Makhadzhirstvo’ (Exodus or Deportation) of the mountain tribes to Turkey, the 150th anniversary of which falls this year, remains the greatest tragedy of their cultural narrative. The Russian support for independence for the Abkhazians, near relatives of the Circassians, may have eased tensions somewhat, but many recent Olympic Games (Salt Lake City, Sydney, Vancouver) have raised the rights of indigenous peoples, lost, it is claimed, during the European colonization of their homelands.
As was shown by Russia’s winning and hosting of the Eurovision song contest, the World Athletics Championship, the Sochi games and the World Cup of 2018, a country’s ‘soft’ power can be enhanced by success in organizing such prestigious international events. However, negative fall-out can also occur when domestic socio-political priorities are over-publicised at the expense of more broadly accepted values (e.g. the ‘gay propaganda’ issue at Sochi).