Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group; US Must Act in Iraq Now to Eclipse Such Stars!

Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria military commander, Omar al-Shishani, is an ethnic Chechen and one of the many Russians and Europeans fighters that Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in 2013 were going into Syria and becoming part of a dangerous, internationalized Islamic militant group.

According to a July 2, 2014, Washington Post article entitled, “Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group, “ a young, red-bearded ethnic Chechen named Omar al-Shishani has rapidly become one of the most prominent commanders and was the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda linked group as it recently overwhelmed Iraqi security forces and took control of large swaths of Iraq. Al-Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is an ethnic Chechen from the Caucasus nation of Georgia, specifically from the Pankisi Valley, a center of Georgia’s Chechen community and a stronghold for militants. He is also one of the hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria, hardened from years of wars with Russia in the Caucasus region.

Al-Shishani has been the group’s military commander in Syria, leading it on an offensive to take over a broad stretch of territory leading to the Iraq border. Al-Shishani surfaced in Syria in 2013 with his nom de guerre, which means “Omar the Chechen” in Arabic, leading an Al-Qaeda-inspired group called “The Army of Emigrants and Partisans,” which included a large number of fighters from the former Soviet Union. A meeting was soon organized with al-Baghdadi in which al-Shishani pledged loyalty to him, according to Lebanon’s al-Akhbar newspaper, which follows jihadi groups. He first showed his battlefield prowess in August 2013, when his fighters proved pivotal in taking the Syrian military’s Managh air base in the north of the country. Rebels had been trying for months to take the base, but it fell soon after al-Shishani joined the battle, said an activist from the region, Abu al-Hassan Maraee. He may have risen to become the group’s overall military chief, a post that has been vacant after the Iraqi militant who once held it—known as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari—was killed in the Iraqi city of Mosul in early June. ISIS began as Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, and many of its top leaders are Iraqi. But after it intervened in Syria’s civil war last year, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its operations in Syria. Now with victories on the two sides of the border, the two branches are swapping fighters, equipment and weapons to an even greater extent than before, becoming a more integrated organization. Its declaration of the caliphate—aspiring to be a state for all Muslims—could mean an even greater internationalization of its ranks. Interestingly enough, in June 2013, at conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Syrian opposition fighters’ ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Syrian opposition fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Syrian opposition fighters.

US power is not only measured by its size, but its moral behavior in the world. The virtues of the US have stood out in the world in the presence of vice. While grave errors in foreign policy decision making during the administration of former US President George W. Bush have been very apparent, the history of US foreign policy did not begin and end in those eight years. There is a greater history of success in US foreign and defense policy and decision making which must not be forgotten. For years as a leader in world affairs, the US has set the standard for performance in international affairs. Its behavior on the world stage manifested US values and principles. Discussion of the ability of the US to meet that standard does mean waxing nostalgically of the past. If it put its mind to it, the administration of US President Barack Obama could very well meet that standard today. What has been promoted instead is a type of international philanthropy proffered by the current administration that scoffs at military power, without realistic alternative options. In speeches, press conferences, and interviews of Obama and administration officials, the discourse on foreign policy appears more as form of pastoral guidance, helping the US public understand and accept a new, less active role of the US in the world. For some in the US public, less desirous of military intervention overseas given the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, expressions of a reformed approach to foreign policy has been seductive and caused some satisfaction. This approach has also helped to guide the establishment of the defense posture, by providing a further rationale for dramatic cuts in the US military and its capabilities. However, the notion that the US can remain dominant in world affairs by doing nothing is false. In the long run that would require reaching agreements with evil maniacs or turning a blind-eye toward their acts to maintain peace. Lately, when US interests or the interest of an ally or partner have been threatened, questions over the availability of the military means to limit that behavior usually arise. That has been the case regarding ISIS in Iraq. Superficial discussions of facts, use of sensationalism, sophistic arguments on military power, and intellectualized explanations of recent events veiled the growing problem of ISIS in Iraq as well as Syria. The Obama administration has taken the US down a path, requiring it to respond or tolerate Iraq’s unraveling and the emergence of ISIS. Obama has explained that the US isis still the world’s leader. However, the US must act in a manner consistent with that title if the administration wishes to retain it

Managing News on the Islamic Militant Problem in Syria

The situation in Syria was presented as urgent issue by Obama administration officials, yet manageable. Once the anti-regime movement in Syria became an armed struggle, the US considered various ways to support the opposition. Multilateral approaches were taken toward organizing opposition political groups as well as their fighters on the ground   Among steps taken was the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the umbrella group for the multitude of different opposition fighting units. Its leadership was placed under the Supreme Military Council. As a possible military response in support of policy goals, the idea of the US launching kinetic strikes against targets in Syria was bandied about. However, there was an understanding established that such strikes would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground, and there was the risk of civilian causalities and US losses. Indeed, the idea of “boots on the ground” was soundly rejected from the start. Eventually, it was reasoned that the FSA, with US supplied arms and training would advance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pressure him into stepping down at the negotiation table. Pressing this issue with US Congress, the Obama administration sent it senior foreign and defense policy officials to Capitol Hill to promote the matter with relevant committees. Yet, Members of Congress were skeptical of the feasibility of that approach. US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told Congress on September 3, 2013, that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day.” However, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4, 2013. McCaul asked Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul then explained, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces—and I say majority now—are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.” Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaida and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”

The administration’s public assessments were captivating and satisfying enough for those who chose not to look deeply and those who chose simple answers. Yet, evidence of the true nature of the situation in Syria was being presented from other sources (i.e., nongovernment policy analysts, journalists, as well as pundits). That information, while not rejected by the administration, was never confirmed. Instead, the administration stated the realities about the Islamic militant presence and growing strength was said to be unavailable. Administration officials proffered the idea that it could not gain a full picture of what was happening on the ground. For the US public, this was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. For whatever reasons, perhaps the national elections for the presidency and the Congress were among them, the conscience of the US public appears to have been deemed too delicate for the reality of the situation. There apparently was some fear that a type of upheaval within the US public over Syria would have occurred. However, the truth was not inaudible to the public’s ears. The perpetuation of the inaccuracy that the situation was under control would lead to disappointment for the US public. Indeed, the truth would eventually overwhelm the superficial assessments being offered.

It is now accepted that unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, Islamic militant groups as ISIS never intended to cease their struggle with the Assad regime under any peace agreement. The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the Syrian opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces have been directed toward creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups have only wanted to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law. Indeed, before the new Islamic Caliphate was established, in towns and villages of rather large segments of Syria that ISIS and rogue Islamic militant groups control, they have imposed a strict form of Sharia law on inhabitants. Infractions of that law have resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrian citizens. Syrian military personnel and regime supporters are rarely spared by the rogue Islamic fighters. ISIS, while still viewed as part of opposition forces, began regularly attacking more moderate Islamic militant groups and secular units. As the FSA was not truly successful at all on the ground, the added pressure of an additional struggle with ISIS helped to derail the Syria effort of the administration of US President Barack Obama. The US effort in Syria hinged on how it would respond to the Islamic militant presence. The Obama administration needed to see this truth early on. Yet, the administration seemingly closed its eyes to this fact. Without military action, US policy could not be advanced. The administration appeared willing to let the entire Syrian situation fall into stalemate while continuing a small, ineffective assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers and military exercise, avoiding military action, and allowing Assad to remain in power.

Sensationalism: The Threat to the Homeland From Syria

Soon enough there was a shift in perspective from the administration. The presence of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria was recognized as a danger, but far beyond the Middle East. At a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing held on January 29, 2014, Committee Chairman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, stated: “Because large swaths of the country . . . of Syria are beyond the regime’s control or that of the moderate opposition, this leads to the major concern of the establishment of a safe haven and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations. Not only are fighters being drawn to Syria, but so are technologies and techniques that pose particular problems to our defenses.” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center testified the same day to Senator Feinstein’s committee that “a permissive environment, extremist groups like Al-Nusra and the number of foreign fighters combine to make Syria a place that we are very concerned about—in particular, the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Syria to the West.” The National Director for Intelligence, James Clapper, in his testimony that day explained succinctly, “What’s going on in there [Syria], and the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very, worrisome.” Given such grim assessments from senior US officials, a decision to take action in Syria would seem inevitable.

These synoptic assessments of potential attacks on the US came from the same sources that had minimized the capabilities and possibilities of the Islamic militants only a few short months before. Evidence of the problem was not being rejected by Obama administration officials, it was, to some extent, being sensationalized. Alerts to threats from Islamic militant groups, even those that were Al-Qaeda linked, no longer create real urgency in the US public. Such alerts came so regularly during the Bush administration that to some degree the US public became desensitized to them.   Moreover, for many in the US public, media reports of such threats came as interesting stories or amusements. Interest was heightened, only to be doused by the next things that came along. In January 2014, the “next things” were events surrounding Super Bowl XLVIII, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and pop singer Miley Cyrus.

Wielding US Power in the Middle East

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, at one point gravely concerned over the course the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, lamented about the Obama administration’s handling of US foreign policy. He explained that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.” Fabius was disappointed and discouraged by “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.” Fabius stated a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and his perception of a “rather isolationist tendency” in US public opinion. Yet, despite such pleas from close allies as the French regarding his administration’s approach to foreign policy, Obama confirmed the worst assumptions made by Fabius in his May 28, 2014 Commencement Address at West Point. Obama explained: “For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” Obama further explained that there was a need for: “a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al-Qaeda leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of US personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi. So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.”

Through this mellifluous speech about multilateral approaches to threat to peace and stability and terrorism in particular, Obama presented a world where problems could be handled through cooperation. This is not a new idea. Regional alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization, and the Organization of American States were created to bring resources of nations together to cope with the “Communist threat.” Even on terrorism, multilateral approaches were viewed as required when modern-era counterterrorism was established during the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan. Yet, the idea that the US can today rely upon multilateral solutions requiring joint action with allies and partners who themselves face drastic military cuts and economic difficulties is unwise. No Western European state with real military capabilities will go into Iraq now, to take on risks while fighting ISIS, especially when its political leaders feel that issue does not fall within their interests. Obama spoke of a hesitancy of the US to act militarily, yet assumes others in the region possessing far less capabilities than the US would subordinate their own interests. concerns, and limitations, to support and defend others. Most states are aware that warfare lately has been asymmetric and not set piece engagements to win quickly. Obama presents this notion of multilateralism to a US public confused about the contrast between the certitude with which Obama speaks, and regular breakdowns in administration foreign policy initiatives that they witness.

The US must look strong. In past cases, what others have thought about the US has deterred them from hostile action. Relative peace was maintained through strength. US diplomacy has been supported in many cases by the credible threat of force. The failure of Obama administration to project authentic US strength globally is not subject to rationalization by its officials. ISIS is unconcerned with US military power and possible US intervention. Among such unenlightened, uncivilized, violent men, reason has little place. Hoping that they might eventually establish some concordance with the government to work toward peace and stability in Iraq and obey international law is absurd. Only the use of force will have a strong educational effect upon them. Given that, the administration’s approach is questionable.

Intellectualization of the Iraq Crisis

ISIS and other insurgent groups have rapidly advanced through the mostly Sunni areas of Iraq. In a matter of days, they have captured several cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and are driving on Baghdad from two directions. It has declared the captured territory the Islamic Caliphate. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, recently appeared in public to make that declaration. As for US airstrikes to reduce ISIS controlled territory, military experts have explained that they would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground. The idea of multilateral action was dead from the start.

Although Obama explained that the goal is to prevent ISIS from achieving a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter, he proffered that the issue goes beyond security assistance. Confronted with this unacceptable situation, Obama has rationalized that part of the challenge is the lack of representation of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds in the Iraqi government. Obama blames divisions for Iraq’s inability to cope with ISIS. Administration officials, at least publicly, have focused not on the ISIS assault, but rather on the idea that from the chaos, they can cobble together a new, more inclusive government in Baghdad. In Obama’s view the formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis. Obama believes leaders who can govern with an inclusive agenda will be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis. It is difficult to understand why the Obama would believe the type of representative government he seeks for Iraq could be designed at the point of an ISIS gun. The majority of Sunnis, Shi’as, and Kurds would never genuinely subsume their interests to satisfy the US regardless of the circumstances. The fact that Maliki came to power evinces the limited US understanding of Iraq’s political situation.

The Way Forward

Obama has been pilloried with scathing criticisms from his Republican Members of Congress and other political rivals over his handling of Syria, Iraq, and the crisis with ISIS. Many of Obama’s harshest critics are former officials from the Bush administration who were themselves directly responsible for plunging the US, unprepared and off-balance, into the Middle East. Polls on the US public’s satisfaction with the Obama administration’s handling of foreign policy rely on snap judgments of a sample of the population. It is easy to say things. Yet, a mature examination of the innermost feelings of the US public would likely yield that there is great disappointment over the handling of US foreign policy.

Obama does not want the US military to intervene on the ground in the Syria. However, the conscience of the US public has been struck by news media reports that ISIS fighters have moved en mass with near impunity through Iraq, a country in which the US, for over eight years, invested so much blood and treasure. Watching reports on mass executions and the establishment of a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East, many are left with a vapid, noncommittal sadness. Hearing the Obama administration claim that there is little the US can do just makes things worse. Leaving the Iraqis to their own devices against what has appeared as an unstoppable blitzkrieg will somehow return to haunt the US. There is a sense of “Minatur innocentibus qui parcit nocentibus” (He threatens the innocent who spares the guilty). In the long-run, the US public will not concede to this situation. The US public seeks to meet the fullness of its humanity. Where there is a need to act in the name of humanity to defend civilization against darkness, they expect action. That is how the US, as the world’s leader, is expected to behave.

Obama, Putin Discuss Olympics Security in Call; Putin Has Got It Covered and He Will Keep His Promise to the Terrorists, Too!

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.

Assessment

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.