Two bomb attacks in southern Russia before the country hosts the Winter Olympics are raising concerns that militants active in the region will target the games to gain international attention.
The main threat is attacks by Muslim separatist groups in the North Caucasus that are at war with the Russian government, according to four U.S. and European counterterrorism officials. They have carried out attacks similar to the suicide bombings at Volgograd’s main train station two days ago and on a trolleybus in the city yesterday that killed more than 30 people.
The presence of athletes from the U.S., Israel, the U.K., Russia and China may attract a broader range of extremists and tempt groups such as al-Qaeda to demonstrate they remain powerful after Osama Bin Laden’s death, the officials said. Speaking on condition of anonymity because they have access to classified intelligence, the officials emphasized they’ve seen no hard evidence of plots to attack the games.
“You can’t lock down everything at once” in a country Russia’s size, Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, said in a Bloomberg Television interview.
President Vladimir Putin vowed to pursue the fight against terrorism in a “tough and consistent” manner in a New Year’s address broadcast first at midnight local time in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk, seven hours ahead of Moscow, state news service RIA Novosti reported.
Putin, who was on an unannounced visit to Khabarovsk, said the “inhuman terrorist acts” in Volgograd and flooding in the Far East were among the most “serious challenges” faced by Russia in 2013, according to RIA.
Putin’s government, which will seal off Sochi, a city of 345,000 people, had planned to beef up security starting Jan. 7, a month before the games start, according to RIA. Russia is spending at least $48 billion to stage the Olympics, making them the most expensive winter games.
The counterterrorism officials said the security threat to the games rises when sites are announced more than six years in advance. That gives terrorists and other potential criminals time to plan, infiltrate the venue or perhaps even attract local recruits, they said.
“We’re taking exhaustive security measures to ensure safety during the Olympics, Ilya Djous, a spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, the country’s top Olympics official, said by phone.
The possible threats to the games extend beyond the Black Sea city of Sochi, 700 kilometers (435 miles) southwest of Volgograd, and include the routes athletes, journalists and spectators will travel to reach the site. There are a limited number of air gateways to the city, including Moscow, Prague, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf and Stockholm.
‘‘It’s quite likely that you’re going to see an uptick in attacks in places like Volgograd, in Moscow, elsewhere in the country, as the insurgents try to get their message out, even though the site of the games themselves is probably going to be too hard of a target,” Mankoff said.
While Russian authorities are deploying 30,000 police officers and soldiers in and around Sochi, the Volgograd attacks emphasize the vulnerability of targets farther away from the host city.
The Australian Olympic Committee said today that it’s telling athletes to use caution in Russia because of the threat of terrorist activity. Athletes will travel straight to and from Sochi by air, with no trips through other parts of the country, according to the AOC’s statement.
The Swiss Ski Federation said in e-mailed comments that the Olympic zones “ will be the safest place on earth during the games.” No athletes have expressed concerns or sought to withdraw, according to the federation.
Sochi lies to the west of the Caucasus Mountains, which stretch about 1,200 kilometers through one of the most economically distressed regions of the country across Chechnya to Dagestan on the Caspian Sea. Toward the east, Russian forces battle almost daily attacks by Muslim extremists after two separatist wars since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In July, Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov, who has said he was behind at least three of Russia’s deadliest terror attacks, called on militants to target the Sochi games. 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.
Yesterday’s attack killed at least 16 people when a man detonated a bomb in the trolleybus during the morning rush hour in Volgograd, while the death toll from the rail-station blast rose to 18 people, RIA Novosti reported today, citing the Health Ministry. More than 60 people remain hospitalized after the two acts, the Interfax news service reported.
There hasn’t been a comparable security threat this close to the opening of the Olympic games, said Bill Mallon, co-founder and past president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. The violence won’t deter him from attending, he said.
“I haven’t missed an Olympic games in forever,” Mallon said. “I think there’ll be tons of security.”
Russia’s Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev led an emergency meeting of the National Anti-Terrorist Committee yesterday in Moscow to discuss steps to protect against the threat of more attacks after the Volgograd bombings. The body is bolstering security across the country on Putin’s orders, the committee said in a website statement.
Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the Federal Security Service, known in Russian as the FSB, flew to Volgograd on orders from Putin.
“This is a despicable attack on innocent people and the entire Olympic movement joins me in utterly condemning this cowardly act,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “I am certain that everything will be done to ensure the security of the athletes and all the participants of the Olympic Games.”
The Investigative Committee, the Russian federal body that oversees major criminal probes, said it’s treating the bombings as terrorist attacks that may be linked. Yesterday’s bomb had the explosive power of more than 4 kilograms (9 pounds) of TNT, according to a website statement.
“If another attack happens closer to Sochi, it will be a catastrophe for the Olympics,” Alexei Malashenko, an analyst on the North Caucasus at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said by phone. “Three bombings in the space of three months means that terrorist activity is becoming systematic.”
Security coordination between the U.S. and Russia has increased following the bombing at the Boston Marathon in April that was linked to the Tsarnaev brothers, two ethnic Chechens who had legally immigrated to the U.S.
“We welcome closer counterterrorism cooperation for the Sochi Olympic Games,” Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, said in an e-mail. The State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security is the main liaison with Russian officials, who have primary responsibility for security at the games, she said.
“We cannot sweep these threats under the rug, like we did with Benghazi or the warnings from Russia on the Tsarnaev brother behind the Boston Marathon bombing,” said U.S. Representative Michael Grimm, a New York Republican who is chairman of the House Russian Caucus.