Russia's North Caucasus Terror Threatens Olympics as Focus Moves to Sochi

Islamic militants in southern Russia, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world, are changing tactics and attacking targets closer to Sochi in a bid to derail the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The killing of Muscovites and bombing of a ski lift at a resort in Kabardino-Balkaria, a region between Chechnya and Sochi, last week is part of “new terror campaign” against Russian rule designed to elicit maximum media coverage, said Grigory Shvedov, chief editor of Caucasian Knot, a Moscow-based news and analysis group that tracks the situation in the North and South Caucasus.

The Feb. 18 attacks occurred on the day when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev touted Sochi’s Olympic preparations 150 miles (240 kilometers) to the west at a skiing event with Jean-Claude Killy, head of the International Olympic Committee’s 2014 organizing commission and winner of three gold medals at the 1968 games.

“The Winter Olympics is a dream come true for terrorists,” Shvedov said in an interview in Moscow. “Attacks will intensify throughout the North Caucasus as we get closer to the games.”

The number of bombings in Kabardino-Balkaria, the hub of a $15 billion state program to develop tourism, more than tripled last year to 41, Caucasian Knot data show, according to a report obtained by Bloomberg.

The bombings spread to North Ossetia and the Stavropol region last year, according to the data published today. The number of bombings for the entire North Caucasus increased 3.9 percent to 238, even as attacks in Chechnya, where federal forces fought two wars against insurgents in the 1990s, declined to 39 from 62. Police in Sochi yesterday destroyed an improvised explosive device planted under a gas pipeline, Interfax reported, citing law enforcement officials.

‘Mesmerizing’ Middle East

The uprisings across the Middle East may encourage extremists in the predominantly North Caucasus further, according to Shvedov.

“The successful turnover of elites in the Middle East is mesmerizing not just militants, but also hundreds of thousands of practicing Muslims” in the region, he said.

Russia has struggled for centuries to control the North Caucasus, a strategic strip of mountainous terrain between the Black and Caspian seas that borders Georgia and Azerbaijan. Chechnya gained de facto independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as separatists fought Russian forces to a stalemate.

Putin, Kadyrov

Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ascended to the presidency in 2000 after sending troops into Chechnya for a second time after warlords invaded neighboring Dagestan. While Putin, who ceded the presidency to his protégé Medvedev in 2008, managed to reduce the carnage in Chechnya itself through his handpicked local leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, violence continues to escalate in nearby regions, except Ingushetia.

In Ingushetia, authorities haven’t been as ruthless as in Chechnya and had more success with more sophisticated tactics cutting the number of explosions in half last year, according to Shvedov.

The IOC, which awarded the Games to Sochi at a ceremony attended by Putin in Guatemala in 2007, said it’s confident Russia will be able to protect competitors and spectators at the competition.

“We have no doubts that the Russian authorities will be up to the task,” the Lausanne, Switzerland-based group said in an e-mailed response to questions addressed to Killy.

‘Heavily Guarded’

That confidence is shared by Kadyrov, who has been the head of deputy head of the Chechen government since 2004.

“There are no serious problems,” Kadyrov, 34, said in an interview in Moscow Feb. 19. “Sochi is heavily guarded and the surrounding Krasnodar region is hard to get to.”

Putin groomed Kadyrov, a former guerilla, to lead Chechnya after his father Akhmad was killed in a bomb attack on the regional capital Grozny’s main soccer stadium in 2004. Human Rights Watch, which tracks government abuse, and Russian human rights organizations have accused Kadyrov of ordering abductions and torture, which he has repeatedly denied.

The amount of terrorism activity in the North Caucasus is “extremely high,” the Prosecutor General’s Office said in a statement on its website in December. Russia killed 332 extremists in the region last year while losing 268 personnel in terrorist-related actions, Medvedev said on Feb. 22.

Medvedev made the North Caucasus Russia’s eighth federal administrative district last year, carving it out of the southern district that includes Sochi, as part of efforts to improve the local economy and reduce unemployment, which he cited as a key factor in the rise of extremism. About 9 million people live in the North Caucasus, an area the size of Tunisia, according to Russian government data.

Forest Dwellers

The number of active militants in the region, where the average age is about 18, is about 1,000 and growing, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Khloponin, the former OAO GMK Norilsk Nickel chief executive officer who heads the North Caucasus Federal District, told reporters Feb. 11. Half of these are “Robin Hoods, guys who really got lost,” he said.

“There are hundreds of terrorists in the forests, supported by thousands more,” said Ahmet Yarlykapov of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Chechen native Doku Umarov claimed responsibility for organizing the Jan. 24 suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport that killed 37 people.

Umarov, the self-styled emir of an Islamic state across the North Caucasus, also claimed responsibility for the attacks on Moscow’s subway system by female suicide bombers last March that killed 40 people and the November 2009 bombing of the Nevsky Express train between Moscow and St. Petersburg that killed 28.

The number of suicide bombers rose by half to 23 in 2010, Shvedov said.

Umarov is an elusive target because he moves from “house to house,” moving in and out of regions, Kadyrov said in the Feb. 19 interview.

“If I know where he is, I will fly there and eliminate him immediately,” Kadyrov said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow at iarkhipov@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Willy Morris at wmorris@bloomberg.net

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