President Vladimir Putin is turning to Barack Obama for help protecting the costliest Winter Games ever from attacks by Islamic extremists, including hundreds of battle-hardened jihadists now fighting in Syria.
About 400 Russian nationals, mainly from the North Caucasus, are currently battling President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria and their return poses a “big threat,” according to Sergei Smirnov, deputy director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor to the Soviet KGB.
“Many of our compatriots are fighting on the side of al-Qaeda in Syria,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, who’s in charge of preparations for the Feb. 7-23 event, said in an interview in Moscow on Oct. 21. “We understand this is a global threat and we can only prevent it through joint efforts.”
As Russia prepares to seal off Sochi, a Black Sea resort of 345,000 people, it’s reaching out to the U.S. and about 80 other nations for help identifying potential threats from abroad, Alexei Lavrishchev, a senior FSB official, said Oct. 2.
At the top of the list are the Russian militants in Syria, whose numbers may be triple what the FSB is saying publicly, according to the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies in Moscow, which expects a third of those fighters to return home.
“Their experience and exposure to al-Qaeda groups represent a real danger,” Elena Suponina, who runs the institutes’s Middle East and Central Asia Center, said by phone. “The Russian security services are very worried about this.”
Russian forces are battling almost daily attacks by extremists in the North Caucasus. One of the poorest regions of the country, it stretches from just east of Sochi across Chechnya to Dagestan on the Caspian. More than 1,000 civilians, militants and law-enforcement officials have been killed in bombings and firefights in the region since the start of 2012, according to Caucasian Knot, a Moscow-based research group.
A female suicide bomber from Dagestan killed six people on a bus on Oct. 21 in the southern Russian city of Volgograd, less than 700 kilometers (430 miles) from Sochi and about 430 kilometers from the border with Dagestan.
“Attacks such as that illustrate the ability of regional militants to undertake attacks outside the North Caucasus,” Matthew Clements, chief analyst for Russia at IHS Country Risk in London, said in an e-mailed note. “This is important in the context of the nearby February 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.”
Putin and Obama agreed to intensify security cooperation for the Games after two ethnic Chechen brothers allegedly detonated a homemade bomb at the Boston Marathon in April that killed three people and injured more than 260. Dozens of U.S. investigators were dispatched to Dagestan, where the brothers once lived, to probe their potential links to international terrorist groups.
Prime Minister David Cameron also agreed to restore relations between British and Russian security services, which were frozen after the 2006 assassination in London of dissident Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, according to Kozak.
There have been attacks at previous Olympics. Eleven members of the Israeli team were killed after being taken hostage by Palestinian militants at the 1972 Games in Munich, and the Atlanta event in 1996 was marred when a bomb planted by an anti-abortionist killed two people and wounded more than 100.
“Cooperation with colleagues from law-enforcement agencies is pivotal,” Putin said in an interview with the Associated Press and Russia’s Channel One television last month. “We have relevant arrangements with the U.S. -- the FBI and other special services, and European partners.”
The U.S. State Department will send an undisclosed number of Diplomatic Security agents to Sochi to help ensure the safety of thousands of American athletes and corporate sponsors, the embassy in Moscow said.
“With host-nation approval, we deploy field liaison officers at designated venues to liaise with the venue security and Team USA,” the embassy said in an e-mailed statement, without being more specific.
Russia is spending about 1.52 trillion rubles ($48 billion) to host its first Winter Olympics, including on security, according to Olympstroy, the state company overseeing preparations. London spent less than a third of that on the 2012 Summer Games.
About 30,000 police officers and soldiers will be deployed in and around Sochi for the contest, Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev told reporters in Washington in May after meeting with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. That’s about the same number the U.K. used in London.
The security services will have “100 percent” control over the Olympic zone, making it “impossible” to infiltrate and conduct a terrorist attack, Nikolai Kovalyov, a former head of the FSB, said by phone.
While a successful attack on one of the main venues is unlikely, softer targets such as transport facilities elsewhere in Russia or side events organized by Olympic sponsors may be vulnerable, said Tina Soria, a security scholar at the Royal United Services Institute.
“We have seen that the Chechen groups are quite sophisticated and they have mounted attacks in the past, so there is a possibility of attacks against airports and train or subway stations,” Soria said by phone from London.
Just down the coast from Sochi, in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, Russian forces last May said they seized a weapons cache that Islamic militants were planning to use in attacks before and during the Games. The arms included shoulder-fired missiles, mortars and explosives, according to the National Anti-Terrorist Committee in Moscow.
In July, Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov, who’s claimed responsibility for at least three of Russia’s deadliest terror attacks, called on jihadists to target the Sochi Olympics.
“Do your utmost to derail these satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors,” Umarov said in a video released over the Internet.
Umarov claimed responsibility for organizing the January 2011 suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport that killed 37 people. The self-styled emir of a pan-North Caucasus Islamic state also said he planned the attacks on the capital’s subway system by female suicide bombers in March 2010 that killed 40 people and the November 2009 bombing of the Nevsky Express train between Moscow and St. Petersburg that killed 28.
Another ethnic Chechen, who goes by the name Abu Omar al-Shishani, leads a jihadist group fighting in Syria called Jaish Al Muhajireen wal Ansar that includes many fellow Chechens, according to Suponina of the Institute of Strategic Studies. The group helped mastermind an attack on villages populated by Assad’s Alawite minority in August in which 190 civilians were killed and more than 200 taken hostage, according to Human Rights Watch.
Officials in Dagestan, which emerged as the most violent region in the North Caucasus after Russian forces fought two wars in neighboring Chechnya, started to notice an exodus of fighters to Syria earlier this year, according to regional Security Council chief Magomed Baachilov.
“Young people just go, they get into a car and drive to the airport, fly via Moscow to an Arab state and from there reach Syria,” Baachilov said by phone. “We’re not involved in this Syrian conflict but we’re concerned that our citizens can create problems for us once they return.”
More than 3,000 fighters from Russia and other former Soviet republics may have joined the Syrian opposition forces, RIA Novosti said, citing the Middle Eastern country’s state-appointed Sunni Muslim mufti, Ahmad Hassoun, during a visit to Moscow today.
Even after the exodus, there are still a dozen major militant groups in Dagestan with hundreds of members and accomplices, some of whom are busy planning attacks on the Olympics, Andrei Konin, the senior FSB official in the region, told officials in the local capital Makhachkala on Oct. 11.
Even so, the International Olympic Committee said it’s confident Russia will be able to ensure security in Sochi and host the Games without a major incident.
“Security at the Games is the responsibility of the local authorities, and we have no doubt that the Russians will be up to the task,” the IOC’s press service said in an e-mailed response to questions.
Still, if the threat wasn’t real, Putin wouldn’t have reached out to Obama and Cameron for all the intelligence help he could get, said Yury Kobaladze, a retired official at the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR.
“If a terrorist attack happens, this will be a catastrophe, especially given the fact that the Games are being held in such an explosive area,” Kobaladze said.