Russia is Hosting the World Cup, and the Real Terrorism Threat is Not Very High

Main Image Credit Russian President Vladimir Putin begins the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour at the Luzhniki Grand Sports Arena in Moscow in September 2017. Courtesy of the Office of the President of Russia.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup, which began yesterday and will go on until July in eleven cities across Russia, may present a ‘significant aspirational target’ for both local and transnational jihadist actors. However, recent assessments of the danger are founded on incorrect data regarding the threat of insurgency in the North Caucasus, the reach of the Islamic State in Russia, and the ‘returnee threat’.

While the risk of terrorism has become a fact of life in every country, there is no available information to justify ‘a very significant risk of terrorist attack during the [FIFA World Cup]’ in Russia, as two authors recently predicted in a report for the Combating Terrorism Center, an academic institution at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. Nor are there grounds for the assertion that ‘returning Russian jihadists pose a likely terrorism threat to security measures at the 2018 FIFA World Cup’, as Chris Hawkins argued in a report for IHS Markit’s Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in May. In fact, anyone choosing to attend should know there is little basis to fear a terrorist attack in Russia during the games.

Russia’s so-called insurgency in the North Caucasus has been, at least for the time being, nearly broken. Between 2013 and 2017, the Russian Federal Security Services (FSB) implemented a policy of exporting their radicals to the Middle East, actively facilitating the transport of thousands to Turkey and, as a consequence, to the caliphate of Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS). Simultaneously, a very successful infiltration and assassination campaign led to the complete decapitation of the Caucasus Emirate (CE), the Al-Qa’ida-linked jihadist entity for almost a decade, even as several major CE commanders pledged loyalty to Daesh after its rift with Al-Qa’ida. The CE has effectively ceased to exist, and Russian security services have killed many senior commanders loyal to Daesh. According to the Kavkaz Uzel media outlet only 175 people were killed or wounded in 2017 across all seven republics comprising the North Caucasus as part of the insurgency, nearly all of whom were either militants themselves or the security personnel they were fighting. This renders the entire region of the Caucasus less dangerous to civilians than the law and order that prevails in several US cities. Dire predictions about the ‘unprecedented’ terrorist threat to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, when the insurgency was far larger and the CE had expressed intent and demonstrated far greater capacity than Daesh, were similarly exaggerated.

The Daesh threat to Russia as a whole is a contentious issue, primarily because neither official statistics and statements nor Daesh’s claims can be taken seriously. Neither of the major attacks to have occurred in Russia since the caliphate was declared in 2014 – the massive assault on Grozny, the Chechnyan capital, in December of that year and the 2017 metro bombing in St. Petersburg – were not conducted by Daesh. Several attacks that Daesh did take credit for are contested by the FSB, some of those attacks may not have actually even occurred, and nearly all were rudimentary attacks on police. Vehicular terrorism of the kind seen all over Europe, identified as a potential threat by Hawkins, has no precedent in Russia.

Where things get interesting are the frequent claims made by Russia’s own FSB that it has foiled large-scale attacks on public spaces and transportation infrastructure. The director of the FSB, Aleksander Bortnikov, has testified in front of the National Counterterrorism Committee of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, claiming that his agency has prevented about 40 massive, sophisticated attacks and dismantled over 100 sleeper cells between 2016 and 2018. If these claims are true, they suggest that terrorists have an extensive reach and capacity across all of Russia. However, there has not been a single attack of this character; the only indication of a genuine Daesh-related threat in Russia comes from the raids to foil Daesh plots and cells, and the only evidence that these exist comes from the FSB, which is too dubious a source to take at face value.

Furthermore, the threat to Russia of ‘returnees’ from the wars in the Middle East has always been overblown. There is no evidence of any large-scale influx of returning foreign-fighters to Russia, and the few recorded instances of returnees re-engaging with the insurgency ended in either death or capture by the security services. Additionally, people are still being arrested for trying to leave Russia to fight for Daesh, and many of those who have not already been killed in the conflict have expressed their intention to leave for other primary Daesh battlefields, such as the Sinai in Egypt, or, for the disaffected, to simply move elsewhere.

Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia and crackdown on its North Caucasus diaspora has deprived jihadi sympathisers in the North Caucasus of a primary safe haven. On top of all this, as the Combating Terrorism Center report noted, Russia has ‘implemented rigorous anti-terror measures’ for the unfolding World Cup games, above and beyond its usual draconian security approach and perpetual ‘counterterrorism operations’.

Of course, it is not impossible that terrorist attacks may occur during the World Cup. But by all accounts visitors should be more wary of football hooligan brawls rather than terrorism.

Oved Lobel has studied and written about Russia and terrorism, and currently works as an analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

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