The Volgograd bombings have shown that even without a claim of responsibility that links them to the Games, terrorist attacks elsewhere in Russia can have almost as great an impact on World opinion as an attack on Sochi itself.
It is highly likely that the bombings of a train station and a bus in Volgograd on 29 and 30 December 2013, as well as a similar suicide attack there on 21 October, were the work of the Kavkaz (Caucasus) Emirate, the Chechen terrorist conglomerate headed by Doku Umarov. It is also highly likely that these attacks will not be the last attempts to disrupt the winter Olympics scheduled to begin in Sochi, some 400 miles to the south of Volgograd, on 7 February 2014.
The success of the Sochi Olympics has become something of a test for Russia. Preparations have already cost over $50 billion by some accounts, and have long attracted stories of corruption and cronyism. The very idea of holding them in a seaside town where average daily temperatures in February range between 50 Fahrenheit and the upper 30s, is ambitious. But President Putin has put all his support behind them and has clearly encouraged the authorities to do whatever it takes to make them a success.
President Putin’s personal investment in the games is perhaps one reason that they have attracted the attention of Umarov. Putin was very much involved in the second Chechen War, significantly stepping up Russian military action after he took over as Prime Minister in late 1999. Indeed, it was in the face of the Russian ‘victory’ in the second war, and its support for the subsequent pro-Moscow leaders of the Chechen Republic, that the separatist opposition changed its focus from fighting in the Caucuses to launching attacks in the rest of the Russian Federation as well.
Inevitably, this has made the Kavkaz Emirate the main target of the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, and the main threat to the security of the Games. The FSB and President Putin have assured the world that the Games will be safe, and there is every reason to suppose that the athletes and the venues will be exceptionally well protected. But the attacks in Volgograd have shown that even without a claim of responsibility that links them to the Games, terrorist attacks elsewhere in Russia can have almost as great an impact on World opinion as an attack in Sochi itself.
In a video address recorded at the end of last June, Umarov said that he and his supporters could not allow the Olympics to be held on the shores of the Black Sea where so many Muslims had died at the hands of the Russians. He said he would do everything possible to ‘disrupt these demonic dances on the bones of our ancestors’. By doing so he set himself a challenge, as well as issuing one to the Russian security forces. If he fails, he will lose credibility, if he succeeds, the credibility of the FSB will be at stake.
More Terrorist Attacks Beyond Sochi
Whatever happens in the next few weeks, terrorist attacks perpetrated by the Kavkaz Emirate are likely to continue in Russia beyond the winter Olympics and outside the Caucuses. For a start, apart from the existing members of the group, there are reports of some 200 Chechens fighting alongside extremist rebels in Syria, some of whom will manage to return home. In fact, it is said that given the difficulty of training recruits in the Caucuses without their being discovered and eliminated by the FSB, Umarov has encouraged sympathisers to go to Syria to fight before attempting to join him so that they can do so battle hardened and proficient in the use of arms and explosives – and no doubt, to some extent, properly vetted.
In the immediate context of the contest between Umarov and Putin over the Olympics, two other factors may be significant. First, the official website of the Kavkaz Emirate has pointed out - since the Volgograd bombings - that Umarov did not threaten to stop the Olympics, only to disrupt them. Perhaps this gives him a let-out if the bombing campaign fails, or falls short of having a major impact. Second, the closing ceremony of the Games will be held on 23 February, which just happens to be the seventieth anniversary of the start of Stalin’s operation to deport the Chechen and Ingush populations from the South Caucuses to Central Asia. Neither side will miss the high symbolism of this date, and although an attack at the end of the Games would clearly not be as disruptive as one at their start, an attack on that date would have particular local resonance.
Given the precautions that the Russian authorities have already taken to protect the Games, and the reputational consequences for them if a successful attack were to occur, the likelihood of any particular spectator or competitor at the Games becoming the victim of terrorism remains low to non-existent. But the Volgograd bombings have already achieved some purpose: after all, terrorists are not out to kill you, just to make you afraid that they might.
Richard Barrett CMG OBE
Associate Fellow, Counter-Terrorism