Recent warnings and restrictions on air travelers heading to Russia are a “real time” response to threats associated with the Winter Olympics, which opened today, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said.
“DHS monitors world events in real time and takes action, when necessary, to confront and respond to threats,” Johnson said in a speech today at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “In support of Russian authorities, we are keeping a close eye on the Sochi Olympics.”
The Transportation Security Administration, which is part of the DHS, yesterday banned liquids, gels and aerosols from carry-on luggage on flights between the U.S. and Russia. That followed an Feb. 5 advisory warning airlines that terrorists might hide bomb-making material in toothpaste tubes.
“We have, out of an abundance of caution, issued advisories to air carriers and others based on what we’ve learned, adjusted TSA security measures, and are continually evaluating whether more is necessary,” Johnson said.
The Olympics are opening under tight security, as Russian authorities respond to threats of terror strikes by Islamic militants. The Black Sea resort of Sochi is just a few hundred miles from the North Caucasus region where Russia has been battling Islamic extremists.
One disruption was averted today when a Ukranian citizen attempted to hijack an airliner and demanded the pilots fly to Sochi, authorities in Turkey, where the airplane landed, said.
The civilian plane operated by Pegasus Airlines and carrying 110 passengers was flying from Kharkov, Ukraine, to Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport when the would-be hijacker claimed to have a bomb and demanded the plane change course.
The aircraft landed in Istanbul and the would-be hijacker was tricked into thinking he was in Sochi, Turkish Transportation Ministry undersecretary Habip Soluk said on CNN-Turk television.
Ukraine has been a source of tension in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Russian officials have said that the pro-Western protests that began last year against President Viktor Yanukovych are being financed and directed by the U.S. and Europe governments.
President Barack Obama said in an interview on NBC last night that the U.S. is working with Russia on security for the games, which as many as 10,000 Americans are expected to attend.
“The Russians have an enormous stake, obviously, in preventing any kind of terrorist act or violence at these venues,” Obama told NBC, which is broadcasting the games. “We’re in constant communications with them, both at the law enforcement level, at the military level, at the intelligence levels, and it’s not untypical of every Olympics, whether it’s in Canada or China or anyplace else.”
The ban on liquids, gels and aerosols in carry-on baggage only applies to Russia-bound flights and doesn’t include checked items.
Three carriers operate a total of five daily departures from the U.S. to Russia each day, according to Houston-based FlightAware, an industry data tracker.
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL) is the only major U.S. carrier with regular service, with one daily departure to Moscow from John F. Kennedy International Airport. OAO Aeroflot (AFLT) has one flight each from New York, Miami and Los Angeles, and Singapore Airlines Ltd. (SIA) flies to Moscow from Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, FlightAware Operations Vice President Mark Duell said in a telephone interview. OAO Transaero lists three flights weekly from New York.
Morgan Durrant, a spokesman for Delta, said he couldn’t comment beyond an advisory to travelers that was posted on the company’s website.
While there was no indication yesterday from DHS of a specific threat, U.S. Representative Peter King, chairman of the House subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, called the risk “credible” and said that the TSA’s ban is justified.
“This is a whole new type threat,” the New York Republican said yesterday in a telephone interview. “We were not aware prior to this and did not believe that you could have a significant amount of explosives in toothpastes or cosmetics. There is a question of how well it can be detected.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to keep Sochi safe by locking down the seaside city of about 345,000, deploying 40,000 police and security agents and state of-the-art equipment.
Sochi lies west of the Caucasus Mountains, bordering one of Russia’s most economically distressed regions stretching from Chechnya to Dagestan. A separatist movement in Chechnya grew into an Islamist insurgency that spilled into nearby provinces and which Russia has struggled to suppress.
Three suicide attacks last year rocked Volgograd, about halfway between Moscow and Sochi. Russian security forces staged a raid in Dagestan on Feb. 5, killing the leader of an extremist group suspected in two of the attacks.
The U.S. has warned athletes and fans planning to attend the Olympics to be aware of recent terrorist threats from Islamic militants, and the Pentagon has said it’s prepared to evacuate Americans from Russia if needed.
To contact the reporter on this story: Del Quentin Wilber in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org