Difficult to defend Olympics, say Stanford experts

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games are a prime target for terrorism, say Stanford scholars. The proximity and intensity of the neighboring Chechen separatist threat as well as the Russian handling of the security issue are heightening fears about possible attacks.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip Russian police search driver, car in Sochi

Russian police screen a driver and his vehicle at an entrance to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games park in Sochi. Stanford experts say the location makes these games an attractive terrorist target.

The possibility of a terrorist attack at the upcoming Winter Olympics is high due to a confluence of risk factors, according to Stanford experts.

It is difficult, they say, to thwart terrorism at such a large-scale event. The Olympics open Feb. 7 and run through Feb. 23, with hundreds of thousands of people visiting multiple sites as spectators. And never before have the Olympic Games been held so close to a regional conflict zone – the North Caucasus.

"Russia is using stringent security measures, including missile defense systems, but there is always the possibility that Chechen and Islamist groups can circumvent them," said Martha Crenshaw, a terrorism expert and senior fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI).

In the past, she pointed out, terrorists have attacked "soft targets" where it is logistically complex to protect everyone and everything. As for Russia's security approach, she said that "cooperation could be better" with U.S. intelligence agencies offering to help. As a result, there is inefficiency and confusion in the Russian efforts. Security would be a daunting challenge for any government given the nature of the Olympics.

"I don't know if there is an ideal approach," said Crenshaw, "because the higher the level of security, the greater the inconvenience for the games themselves."

In the long run, she suggested, understanding the root causes of Chechen terrorism might be the best – if perhaps unlikely – solution. "It is a complex problem and one Russia has not wished to address."

The Chechens harbor a long history of grievances against Russia, and their nationalistic cause has merged with extreme Islamism to produce an especially virulent – and coldly effective – strain of terrorism, she said.

On top of this, in recent weeks the threats against the Sochi Olympics have been unusually specific and come from groups other than the Chechens, including threats from Ansar al-Sunna, which is mainly composed of Iraqi Kurds.

"There is no reason to believe there will be any restraint," said Crenshaw.

Separating the real from the unreal

Amy Zegart, a co-director of CISAC and a professor of political economy, said the Russians face a monumental task trying to detect legitimate terrorist threats.

"They have to find the true signals of a possible impending attack amid a crushing amount of 'noise' – literally millions of intercepts and reports conveying false leads, hoaxes and information that turns out to be irrelevant or deceptive," Zegart said.

History has shown that surprise attacks are rarely surprises, she noted. "The signals are almost always there. But locating and putting those signals together in time to prevent disaster is incredibly hard."

Will Sochi be safe? "No one really knows, but the risks of attack there are certainly much higher than normal."

The Olympic Games, Zegart said, are attractive terrorist targets. There were incidents at the games in 1972 and 1996. What makes Sochi worse is its location.

"Sochi's proximity to Chechen terrorist strongholds ups the risk factor beyond this baseline for a witches' brew of terrorists – from established groups to lone wolves," she said.

Last month, an Islamist group claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in the Russian city of Volgograd that killed 34 people, and explicitly threatened more attacks at Sochi. News reports in recent weeks have warned of "black widow" attacks from female suicide bombers avenging the death of a husband or boyfriend.

Moreover, the Russians are not exactly inspiring confidence in the upper echelons of the American government, Zegart said.

"The fact that U.S. naval ships are now on standby to evacuate Americans while Russian officials are resorting to handing out fliers of a suspected black widow operative suggests that Putin's vaunted security 'ring of steel' is not so steely," she said.

'The world is watching'

Kathryn Stoner said both the high visibility of the Olympics and their location makes them difficult to defend. "The world is watching," said the FSI senior fellow. "And as we saw tragically in Munich in 1972, the Olympics tend to be a target for terrorists to publicize their missions. Beyond this, though, it's hard to think of a more difficult venue in Russia for the Olympics."

The Chechen-Russian issue dates back hundreds of years but was exacerbated, Stoner said, when Vladimir Putin became the Russian President and then sent Russian troops back into Chechnya, which is about 500 kilometers from Sochi.

"The conflict in Chechnya has been largely but not completely resolved and separatist fighters continue to conduct terrorist attacks in other parts of Russia," Stoner said, pointing to bombing incidents in the Moscow metro and at a school in Beslan in southern Russia where hundreds of children and parents were ultimately killed in a botched rescue attempt.

She said that the Russian government is very aware of the risk of terrorist attacks in the Sochi region. Reports on the ground in and around Sochi are that it is now virtually impossible to enter the city without proper identification documents.

"That said, the sealing of Sochi has only happened within the last few weeks. The danger, I think, is that a determined terrorist attacker, or group of attackers, could have already been in Sochi for several months, posing as construction workers, retail workers or the like. In the last several days, there have also been reports of a known and aspiring black widow bomber who was spotted supposedly on a street in Sochi," said Stoner, deputy director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.

What is the bottom line for Russia? Stoner said the country has a tremendous stake in seeing that the games are safe.

"President Putin wants to use the Sochi games to show off how far his country has come since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has invested a tremendous amount of time in giving his personal attention to the planning and execution of a successful games," she said.

As for U.S. intelligence or even military assistance, she said the Russians are "understandably hesitant" to provide the CIA or FBI with too much information regarding their domestic communications systems.

With all the security attention, Stoner said, these Olympic Games might turn out to be the safest ever. "Terrorists may choose instead to attack targets on the way to Sochi."

And for those attending Sochi or participating as athletes, the advice rings familiar, she said: "If you see something, say something."

Martha Crenshaw, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies: (650) 723-0126, crenshaw@stanford.edu

Amy Zegart, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies: (650) 725-4202, zegart@stanford.edu

Kathryn Stoner, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies: (650) 736-1820, kstoner@stanford.edu

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu