Putin is determined to host a “safe and secure” Olympic Games in Sochi. Russian security officials are using every tool at their disposal, leaving nothing to chance.
According to a January 21, 2014, Reuters article entitled, “Obama, Putin Discuss Olympics Security in Call,” US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked over the telephone about how best to have a “safe and secure” 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, as well as efforts to contain the Iranian nuclear program and the situation in Syria. The article was based on a White House statement that gave few details about the telephone call. However, in presenting the state of mind in Washington regarding the Games, the Reuters article emphasized how US military and intelligence officials were spending a lot of time considering how the US could evacuate US citizens from the Sochi in case of a crisis. It mentioned that the US State Department has issued a warning to US citizens planning to attend the Games, insisting that they remain vigilant about their security due to potential terrorist attacks. Ostensibly, due to the threat of terrorism, Us officials are clearly view Sochi more in terms as a potential tragedy than as a premier sporting event.
The threat to the Games that has caused US officials to express considerable concern in the media is an Islamic insurgency just over the Caucasus Mountains. The insurgency, organized into a loose alliance of rebel groups known as Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), has been simmering more than a decade after it drove separatists from power in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya during Putin’s first term. They seek to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia that includes Sochi. In a video posted online in July, their Chechen-born leader, Doku Umarov, called for “maximum force” to prevent Russia from staging the Sochi Games. The Associated Press reported in a January 19, 2014 article that the Islamic militant group Vilayat Dagestan claimed responsibility for two terrorist attacks in Volgograd in December 2013. The attacks in Volgograd came on top of a number of other terrorist enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District. Volgograd was also targeted in October 2013 when a suspected female suicide bomber killed six people on a bus. Fearing a similar martyrdom operation, police in Sochi very recently have handed out fliers at area hotels warning of another woman they believe could be a terrorist and who may currently be in the city. The flier asks workers to be on the lookout for Ruzanna “Salima” Ibragimova, described as the widow of a member of a militant group from the Caucasus region. The woman, according to the flier, may be involved in organizing “a terrorist act within the 2014 Olympic region.” Photos of Ibragimova have flooded television and social media reports from Sochi. She is being called a “black widow,” which are female terrorists from Chechen separatist groups. Many are wives of insurgents killed by Russian government forces. The black widows have reportedly carried out a number of high profile suicide bombings.
US officials have been critical of the reaction of Russian authorities to the recent violence. They claim that measures being taken may not be sufficient. On ABCNews “This Week” in January 19, 2013, Congressman Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, expressed concern about the preparations in Sochi, though he said he believed that “President Putin is taking this very seriously” and “taking all the precautions.” In light of the recent deadly bombings by regional terrorist groups and the threats of additional attacks, McCaul said he thought that it was likely that attacks would occur somewhere in Russia during the Games. McCaul stated that he would travel to Sochi to confer with security officials, in part to study their plans for evacuations in the event of an attack. Congressman Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on the same Sunday program that US officials working with the Russians ahead of the Games had “found a departure of cooperation that is very concerning.” Rogers, in a rebuff to Putin, stated with an estimated 15,000 US citizens planning to travel to Sochi for the Games, Russian security services should provide their “full cooperation.”
As efforts to complete construction in Sochi before the Opening Ceremony on February 7th continue, comments by US officials have built-up concern globally on whether the Olympic Games will be safe enough to participate in and visit. Putin and Russian security officials likely have their own views on why US officials are adamant that attack will occur and Russia is not prepared, but they do not appear distracted by US criticism. Russia is implementing a security plan formulated months before the Games and integrated into the overall approach to Russia’s security. Russia has not been simply reacting to events. Coordination with other nations may not be ideal, but circumstances beyond Sochi perhaps best account for that. The threat of terrorism has become a concern in the planning of every major sporting event. In the US, the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta were disrupted when two visitors were killed by a bomb set by a domestic terrorist. Counter-terrorism has been a key aspect of Russia’s national security policy for many years. Russian counter-terrorism and anti-terrorism efforts to defeat any terrorist threats directed at Sochi appear very sound; nothing appears to have been left to chance. In a January 19, 2014 press conference, Putin explained: “The job of the Olympics host is to ensure security of the participants in the Olympics and visitors. We will do whatever it takes.” Through it all, Putin also intends to keep the promise made to Russia in his New Year address in which he stated: “We will strongly and decisively continue the battle against terrorists until their total annihilation.” After the Olympics, it may be demonstrated that his considerable investment of resources to Sochi’s security greatly enhanced his ability to achieve that goal.
Defeating the Islamic Militant Threat to the Games
To guarantee for the Russian people that the Games will be a proud occasion, Putin has had his government put in place what officials and experts described as the most intensive security apparatus in the history of the event. Russian law enforcement and other security services have promised to surround Sochi with a “ring of steel.” According to Mark Galeotti of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, an expert on Russian security services, the security presence in Sochi was twice as large as that used during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, even though London’s population is more than 20 times that of Sochi. As of this month, there have been reports that among the measures being taken for the Games, more than 5,500 video cameras will be in operation as part of the “Safe Sochi” policy. Of those, 309 will be manned by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). The FSB has also had an outlay for their Plastun scout robots. The devices are heavy with surveillance equipment: thermal imaging, cameras and devices that can detect a sniper’s scope. Drones will be deployed, including the FSB’s Gorisont-Air S100, which can be easily weaponized. The MVD has 421 Zala drones available. The System of Operative Investigative Measures system (SORM) will be used to monitor spectators and athletes alike. SORM-1 captures telephone and mobile phone telecommunications; SORM-2 intercepts Internet traffic; SORM-3 gathers information from all forms of communication and has a storage facility. FSB has control centers connected directly to operators’ computer servers. To monitor particular phone conversations or Internet communications, an FSB agent only has to enter a command into the control center located in the local FSB headquarters. This system is allegedly duplicated across Russia. In every Russian town, protected underground cables exist that connect the local FSB bureau with all Internet Service Providers and telecom providers in the region. Electronic systems with far greater capabilities, concealed from the public, may also have been deployed to protect Sochi.
Those technical capabilities are only part of preparations. More than 50,000 security men will be on duty. Most likely some of them will be in plain clothes, mingling with visitors. There will likely be a greater security presence around certain teams and venues. The regular forces have been augmented by a large deployment of Cossacks, the traditional horseback warriors who once patrolled Russia’s frontier, serving more recently in a public safety role in southern Russia. Several hundred have moved into the Olympic Village, joining the police on foot patrols and at checkpoints in their traditional uniforms. Zones for population control will be established where bags, personal belongings, movements and credentials will be checked. All visitors will need a Spectator Pass which they will acquire upon registering in Sochi.
The response to the Volgograd attacks was part of the overall effort at securing the games. Immediately after those attacks, 4,000 policemen were dispatched to Volgograd, placing over 5,200 on the ground for what Russian authorities called an “Anti-Terrorism Whirlwind, ” It was a display of what resources could be called upon and methods that could be used. Russian MVD and FSB troops surround the homes of suspected militants and pull them out for arrest. Further, security services have taken the step of striking with special service units swiftly and covertly against suspected terrorist groups, “likely being monitored,” before the opening ceremonies or during Sochi. Strikes by special service units of the MVD and FSB, and perhaps the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), appear to be creating confusion and chaos within the leadership of the Islamic militant groups, leaving the groups rudderless and unable to resurrect themselves enough to direct any operations during the Olympic Games. Raids against the leadership of Imarat Kavkaz reportedly resulted in the killing of Doku Umarov, the leader of the so-called Caucasus Emirate, who called for “maximum force” to prevent Russia from staging the Sochi Games. Ramzan Kadyrov, the top Russian official in the Chechen Republic reported the information about Umarov’s death came from intercepted communications between other rebel leaders who were concentrated on finding his replacement. The Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified source in Russian security agencies as saying they “can’t confirm Umarov’s death.” However, additional messages posted on Chechen militant blog sites also suggested Umarov was killed in an operation by Russian special services troops. (See greatcharlie.com on January 8, 2014 post entitled “Putin Vows to Annihilate the Terrorists, But Until the Winter Olympics Are Over, Other Steps Must Suffice.”)
Regarding Concerns About Cooperation
Security officials of the US, EU, and other countries may want to assist the Russians beyond liaising with officials, to include providing personnel and technical resources. A contingent of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agents and State Department security officials will be in Sochi to attend to the security of the American contingent. Yet, there was never real hope or that there would be significant cooperation between Russia and other countries on Sochi . The Russian security services have never been known for their transparency. Nearly everything they do is kept confidential and compartmentalized within the services as well. In an unusual move, in 2013, the FSB announced it was monitoring the movements of Russian nationals traveling to Syria. Other monitoring activities of the Russian security services were evinced when it was revealed by the Boston Globe that the Russians had warned the FBI about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two ethnic Chechen brothers responsible for the terror bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon, two years before the attack. In the interview presented on the ABCNews Sunday morning program, “This Week” on January 19th, Putin, responding in part to concerns made by US officials over security preparations, explained if foreign athletes wanted to provide their own additional security, “there is nothing wrong with that,” as long as they coordinated with the Russian authorities.
Yet, it is somewhat disingenuous for US officials to discuss coordination between the US and Russian intelligence and law enforcement services, even for the Olympic Games, without recognizing the problems that exist in the relationship. There have been public displays of coordination on the Syrian chemical weapons removal, Geneva II talks between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition coalition, the Iran nuclear talks. However, the relationship is best marked by: disagreement on the reduction of nuclear force levels; Putin’s decision to allow National Securty Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; Putin’s “thought provoking” letter to the US public, published in the New York Times Op-Ed section; ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of SVR officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the FBI in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and, most of all, the uncongenial personal relationship between Putin and Obama, resulting in the cancellation of last summer’s summit. Further, there has always been a certain degree of mutual distrust between the US and Russian intelligence services, stemming from their Cold War rivalry and balanced through a modus vivendi in the field. Sharing between organizations took a turn for the better after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, but then fell back into difficulty.
Threats to the US homeland were the cause for coordination between Russia and US services after September 11, 2001, but the security for the Sochi Games involves the protection of the Russian homeland. For the Russians, it is a matter of national interest and national pride. The Russians feel they have the best handle on the situation in the South Caucasus. Their understanding comes from years of hands on experience with the Islamic militant groups, uncovering complex networks of associated groups. They have created their own networks across their entire country, The Russians likely feel the understanding US or other nations’ security officials have on the security situation there is based on the abstract, gleaned from reports and studies. Bringing US security officials to an situational awareness equal to that of Russian officials, who understand Islamic militant groups in the region from the inside, would require the use of more resources and precious time. Efforts to support the Russians using technical means may exist, but it is likely some it duplicates Russian efforts already ongoing with the use of their own tools.
More importantly, MVD and FSB authorities are very likely concerned that with so many, if not all, of their premium security assets being employed to protect the Games, US specal agents and case officers would be provided a unique opportunity to observe and collect data on the capabilities and effectiveness of the Russian security services. Defeating that possibility would mean covering the US security presence in or around any secure facilities with counterintelligence resources that are needed for the Sochi anti-terrorism effort.
Russian authorities may sense that US officials expressing their concerns over security for the Games may be projecting the fears and anxieties raised during their own efforts to protect the US homeland from attacks in the post-September 11th environment. While Russian officials may not know or be able to intimate if or when an attack might be attempted at Sochi, they are neither uncertain, nor insecure about their ability to defeat anything that falls within their radar. That is the best they can hope for. From a more cynical Russian perspective, US concerns over security for the Games, especially among political officials, is that 2014 is an election year for the US Congress, and expressing concern over the Games servs to demonstrate a candidate’s willingness to protect US citizens and interests overseas. Additionally, the Russians security officials may feel the attempt is being made to goad them into exposing their security tactics, techniques, and procedures as a result of comments by US officials or pundits regarding Russian capabilities.
“Annihilating the Terrorists”
Perhaps Putin could have attempted to eliminate the problem of terrorism from Islamic militant groups altogether by committing his security forces to large-scale operations a year or more before the Games. Contrary to statements made by US officials, all along, the Russians have been very sensitive to the fact that any large-scale, federal district wide, counter-terrorism operations weeks before the Games could have possibly spoil the spirit of the Olympics, and create the impression that Sochi is not safe to visit.
At the end of the Games, however, it is very likely that elevated use of sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups will leave the Russian government with the best understanding ever of regional Islamic terrorist groups. It is possible that so much quality information will have been gathered and the security services situational awareness will be so enhanced that new, more effective operations against terrorist groups could be conducted by MVD, FSB, and possibly SVR special service groups. (Note: These units and their capabilities are discussed in the January 8, 2014 greatcharlie.com post.) Those operations might result in a decisive victory over the terrorist. The operations of the`special sevice groups could be augmented by the use of regular military ground and air assets. Their firepower could be directed to have a multiplier effect in the field.
Retired US General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the US Joint Special Operations Command, has offered hints on how to exploit situational awareness at a level which the Russians may have acquired while securing the Games. When striking at a terrorist group’s network, the goal is to paralyze its nervous system. Hitting it intermittently, or every other night, allow the opponent to become stronger, having become accustomed to resurrecting itself. However, McChrystal indicated that if you strike at enough targets simultaneously, taking down key leaders, the group will be thrown into chaos and confusion and have a difficult time “regenerating.” That will allow for decisive effects.
Units also can be better utilized as a result of excellent situational awareness. McChrystal explained: “Traditionally, if we did a raid and we thought we were going to need 20 commandos, to actually be on the target, we might take 120, because we had to put security around the site to protect it from enemy reinforcements, and we might have to put a support section and a command and control section there because you need all those things to account for the unexpected. But when you have very good situational awareness and good communications, you only send the 20, because your security comes from being able to see, and then you can maneuver forces if you need them. So suddenly, the 120 commandos aren’t doing one raid; their doing six raids, simultaneously, and you start to get the ability to do 300 raids a month.”
To speed the process and achieve a high level of success, the Russians could adapt a form of “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze” (F3EA) developed by McChrystal. Under the concept, security forces would understand who or what is a target, locate it, capture or kill it, take what intelligence one can from people and documents, analyze that, then go back out execute the same cycle again. If Russian security forces would be able to act at a speed as fast as US special operators in Iraq under McChrystal ‘s command, decision-making would need to be de-centralized because of the high number of raids. Subordinate elements must be allowed to operate quickly. (See much more on McChrystal’s concepts in General Stanley McChrystal, My Share of the Task A Memoir Portfolio, 2013)
Not to advise Imarat Kavkaz or Islamic militant groups in the Caucasus, but if they have a goal to create an Islamic state in Russia, nothing would do more to ensure that hope will never be realized than attacking the Games. An attack would be an international tragedy, a violation of the Russian people, and a personal affront to Putin. Along with international outrage and condemnation, Russian authorities would most likely implement the most ferocious plans formulated as a response. Assuredly, there would be endless capture and kill raids, and decisive military attacks against any strongholds established. It is somewhat likely that Putin, outraged, would also consider the physical displacement of specific parts of the community from which the militant groups emanate and situating them in a various secure areas in different parts of Russia until such time the threat of terrorism posed to the Russian people could be sorted out. Other nations and human rights groups might complain, but there would be little they could do to stop it.
There is the possibility that concerns over security for the Olympic Games will be quelled only after it closes on February 27th without any incidents of violence. Interestingly, Islamic militant groups posed a threat to the Russian government long before the Games were scheduled. There may be legitimate concern behind much of the criticism. However, there may very well be a political purpose behind the timing of some of it. Perhaps the benefit of the generous investment of security resources on Sochi might be the creation of opportunities for Russian security officials to establish enduring security in the Caucasus. Those groups that may seek to disrupt or halt the Games through terrorism might want to consider that the Games reach a level of national and historical importance and psychic benefit for the Russian people that Putin’s response would be unprecedented. The purpose of any militant group cannot be served by eliciting Putin’s wrath. Sochi is the wrong place and the wrong time for the militant groups to act. Hopefully, from February 7th to February 23rd, peace, unity, and good sportsmanship will be the only things concerning the world at the Games.