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© RIA Novosti. Konstantin Chalabov

Boston attack raises questions about security at Sochi Olympics

by Kristen Blyth, RIA Novosti at 22/04/2013 18:34

Varvara Turova, a Russian actress and popular bar owner in her early 30s, was standing in line to get into a rock festival just outside Moscow in 2003 when a bomb went off.

“We’re already in the middle of the line, but it’s terribly hot and I’m impatient to listen to music already,” she wrote in a public post on her Facebook page.

“Then there’s a loud sound, and I squeeze my eyes shut for a second, and when I open my eyes, then I see that people are falling down dead all around me, and I see a lot of blood and fragments of bodies.”

A female Chechen suicide bomber had blown herself up outside the concert. Minutes later, a second female bomber followed.

14 people died and at least 60 were injured in the twin terrorist bombings on Tushino airfield.

“An attack can happen anywhere,” Varvara wrote. “And it’s scary not only that your life is endangered, but that it forever robs you of a feeling of home, a sense of security, a feeling of being safe behind the front lines [of war]. There’s no more safety – just a continuous front line. And that smell in your nose forever.”

Varvara wrote the Facebook post last Tuesday, reacting with empathy after three people died and 170 others were wounded in a twin bomb attack on the Boston Marathon.

The identity and motives of the Tushino suicide bombers were clear. Bombings and terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists had already become a mainstay of ethnic and political conflict between the Caucasus region and the Russian government. As time goes on after the Boston Marathon attack, the identities of the bombers – Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnayev, brothers of Chechen origin who had lived in the U.S. for about ten years – have been revealed, but the motive remains unknown to the public at press time.

The involvement of ethnic Chechens in the Boston Marathon bombing has drawn security to the forefront of public concern in Russia, particularly with regards to the nation’s upcoming sports competitions.

Russia will play host to three major sporting events in the coming year: the Universiade – an international multi-sport competition – in Kazan in July, the World Championships in Athletics in Moscow in August, and the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi next February.

In the wake of a fresh terror attack, the public, athletes, and officials are forced to reconsider whether Russian security is prepared.

‘A wake-up call’

The news of the Boston attack drew rapid reactions from Russian officials, several of whom promised increased security at upcoming Russian events because of the attack.

“For us this is a serious wake-up call,” Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told RIA Novosti outlet R-Sport. “Of course we’ll tighten up our security measures.”

Sochi, due to Russia’s heavy financial and reputational investment plus the sheer scope of the Olympic Games, is of particular concern. The special services of numerous foreign countries have already visited Sochi in a series of test events – smaller sports competitions which probe the functionality and security of the future Olympic sites – and have thus far expressed satisfaction.

The Interior Ministry released a statement last Tuesday which declared that though security in the Sochi Olympic complex was already “fully compliant,” “enhanced security measures” would be implemented in the area beginning June 1.

Officials, however, appear to lack consensus on the issue of Sochi security. The government’s Olympic supervisor, Dmitry Kozak, contradicted the ministry’s statement on Thursday.

“All necessary security measures that will protect people and protect all the [Olympic] events ... are being implemented right now at the test events in their entirety, as they will be at the Olympic Games, just scaled down a little,” Kozak said, as reported by R-Sport. “No extra [security] measures are under consideration at this moment in time.”

Even after the revelation that the Boston bombers were of Chechen origin, Olympic organizers reiterated their confidence in Sochi security.

“We have no doubt that the Russian authorities will be up to the task,” International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams told the Chicago Tribune on Friday.

Expecting the unexpected

The Sochi Olympic Games, according to some experts, may be the most vulnerable of Russia’s upcoming sports competitions for a number of reasons.

The geographic location of Sochi – just a few hundred kilometers away from the Northern Caucasus region, which includes Chechnya – places the Games very near to a politically turbulent area. The Northern Caucasus is the Russian stronghold of militant Islamic extremists.

The government has made pointed efforts in recent months to crack down on extremists, conducting an increasing number of antiterrorism operations in Ingushetia.

President Vladimir Putin also dismissed the president of Dagestan – Magomedsalam Magomedov – in January, which was widely interpreted as a further attempt at stabilization.

“[The dismissal] was seen…as an indirect measure to prepare for the Olympics,” Alexey Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on the center’s website. “Magomedov’s interim successor, Ramazan Abdulatipov, is considered by Putin to be more decisive than his predecessor in fighting radicals and extremists.”

If proactive in subduing prospective terrorists in some regions, though, the government has not addressed potentially problematic ethnic conflicts in Sochi itself.

The Circassians – one of the largest ethnic groups in the Caucasus region – underwent a forced emigration in the 1860s by the Russian government which cost, according to some estimates, up to 1.5 million lives. Sochi is the site of many mass Circassian graves – including land that is allocated for construction of Olympic stadiums.

Moscow’s lack of recognition of their history and cultural influence in Sochi has outraged many of the local Circassians. Several ethnic leaders have expressed offense that the Games – which will be held on the 150th anniversary of the Circassian “last stand” massacre in 1864 – will be held on the graves of their ancestors.

Collaboration between regional extremist groups, according to Malashenko, could present a major danger to the safety of the Games.

“The biggest threat for the Olympics would be if the Islamic extremists found a common language with Circassian extreme nationalists,” he wrote. “The possibility also remains that terrorist activities in Sochi could take on an international dimension.”

The silver lining of confinement

Politics and terrorism activity in the Caucasus are a complex issue, however, and other experts believe that fundamental differences between militant groups would be too great to coordinate a joint attack.

“Collaboration in the terrorism world is much less of a group phenomenon and much more of an individual phenomenon,” James Forest, a terrorism expert and the Director of the Graduate Program in Security Studies at University of Massachusetts Lowell, told The Moscow News. “There’s never really a memorandum of understanding between two groups.”

According to Forest, the Olympics actually have a security advantage over events like the Boston Marathon due to the space-confined nature of the event. Since most of the competitions are staged at specific, enclosed locations, he said, spectators remain in one place for the duration of the activity – allowing for a much tighter level of security.

Sochi’s small size will also work to Russia’s advantage in providing protection, said Maxim Agarkov, an analyst with the SK Strategia think tank.

“It’s simple enough to prepare safety measures, because there’s only one road [in Sochi],” he told The Moscow News. “In Moscow there are many entrances and exits. It would be much more complicated [to protect].”

The Olympic security blanket

Whether supplementary precautions will be implemented at Sochi or not, Olympic security remains an especially prominent issue because the event has been attacked in the past.

The Palestinian group Black September took 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage at the 1972 Munich Summer Games. All of the hostages were killed by the time the stand-off ended. The 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta were also targeted by a terrorist attack, which had been motivated by the government’s liberalization of abortion policy.

Protection of the Olympic Games has, as a result, grown to intense proportions. Security at last summer’s London Olympics was provided by about 40,000 British police officers, members of the British armed forces, and personnel from private security company G4S. The event stadiums were secured by six surface-to-air missile sites, and a private contractor, BT Group, provided IT security during the duration of the Games.

The full details of Sochi’s security coverage have not been publicly released. Video monitoring of main streets and popular leisure areas has already been implemented as part of the “Safe Sochi” program aimed at improving public safety.

Plainclothes security and elaborate visitor registration, according to Malashenko, the Carnegie Moscow Center expert, will constitute part of the city’s protection as well.

“The government’s plan is to require people who have bought tickets to Olympic events to then obtain a special registration card using their passport and to be registered in the spectators’ registration system,” he wrote on the center’s website.

The Boston Marathon bombing was not the first terrorist attack on a major sporting event, and it likely will not be the last. The fact that ethnic Chechens were ultimately responsible was a surprise to many Americans – but for Russians, a dreadful pattern of recognition emerged.

For Turova, both the Tushino attack and the Boston attack are now a part of her. “Every attack that I find out about happens a little bit inside of me,” she wrote.

Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #15"
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