Assessing the Terrorist Threat to the Sochi Olympics

December 22, 2013

Laurent Vinatier

Countdown to Sochi Monument

On July 3rd 2013, in a video published on YouTube that was almost immediately taken down, Doku Umarov, the self-proclaimed emir of a Caucasus Emirate in the southwest of the Russian Federation, lifted the moratorium on military operations targeting civilians that he unilaterally declared several months ago. He also called on his troops to do everything possible to oppose and to prevent the proper execution of the Sochi Winter Games in February 2014. The Caucasian leader could not forego this ideal occasion to remind the world of the enduring struggle led first by the Chechens in their fight for independence (1994-2005) and then taken up by a very loose network of Islamist armed groups that thrived in the neighboring republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. What does this Caucasus Emirate represent today? And what can its fighters do?

Russian federal security forces regularly launch operations to eliminate local or regional emirs throughout region. In Dagestan for instance, the “republic” leader hardly ever survives for more than one year at a time. In Kabardino-Balkaria as well, the insurgency has been successively decapitated in 2010, in 2011 and in 2012, losing not only its leader but all of its deputies as well. In Chechnya, in January 2013, the Gakaev brothers, famous and well-respected warlords among the Chechen guerillas, were killed after six days of fighting. It is said that, almost out of ammunition, they asked their comrades to shoot them. The two brothers were the last of the reputed second-generation combatants who inherited the historical independence struggle, and who in 2013 were still in control of the most important insurgent groups in Chechnya. As for the Ingush, after losing Commandant Magas, their hero, in 2010, who has been imprisoned in Moscow, his successor, Emir Adam was killed in May 2013. The North-Caucasian guerillas, usually loosely structured, are now outright destabilized. To cope with these recurrent strategic losses, the armed groups have retreated to reorganize and recoup their tactical capacity.

Thus, insurgent actions in the region have become rarer and rarer. Neither Doku Umarov nor any of his regional emirs have engaged in any coordinated and significant operations for at least two years. The guerilla groups have entered into a defensive survival strategy, more reactive and resource-light. In Kabardino-Balkaria, the leadership vacuum has advanced quite a bit, resulting in autonomous groups of just a few fighters, around five usually though sometimes one or two, who get together and act by themselves, without any orders from above. Elsewhere, in Dagestan for instance, the relevant level seems to be the city or the village, where locally-active insurgents operate. Only at this very small scale do engagement and decision-making exist. North-Caucasian armed mobilizations are working on a bottom-up model. This explains the absence of overall coherence between the different victims targeted by the Emirate and the much more diversified militant groups dispersed throughout the region.

The Caucasus Emirate, clearly losing strength against Russia, is benefitting from the growing role played by Syria insofar that some Caucasian nationals have successfully waged war against Assad’s loyalist forces. One of them is Abu-Umar ash-Shishani, a Chechen from Georgia (ethnic Kist living in the Pankissi Valley), who has attained a high position in the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, one of the most powerful organizations within the Syrian opposition. His authority and prestige stem mainly from his operational capabilities, as well as his men’s fighting skills. The “advertisement” effect for the Caucasus Emirate works perfectly here. Beyond Sochi, the Caucasian Islamist struggle has been forgotten by the world. The Syrian struggle has afforded it a chance to recover some visibility. Gradually then, thanks to a few Caucasian relays in Syria, Doku Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate has been noticed by international Salafist-Jihadist movements, and it is now recognized as one of the global Jihad fronts alongside Yemen, Afghanistan or Somalia.

The North-Caucasian insurgency resembles a myriad of anarchic armed groups rather than a proactive and structured movement. It undeniably maintains a capacity to cause harm, but it does not seem to be able to translate that nuisance into an operational and strategic breakthrough. For example, an isolated suicide attack, as the one on October 21st in Volgograd, where a young woman entered a city bus and triggered a bomb, may still theoretically be possible. But considering the heavy security presence that the Russian forces have implemented around Sochi, a successful attack would require an effective and powerful organization behind it. That’s why it is rather unlikely that a suicide bomber, sent by the Emirate, will manage to attack the Games.

Dr. Laurent Vinatier is a research assistant at the Thomas More Institute and a contributor to the

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  • Oldan Peacedoff

    Who gives a rats ass what happens in or to Russia.

  • Self-appointed leaderships by definition work in isolation, counting more on external videophonic-cinematographic effect
    than on internal cohesion or mass following. Entrepreneurs
    are risk-takers, with in-built circumstantial adaptiveness,
    contextualized imagination and target-specific drive, all of
    which are result-oriented – results at any and all costs. It
    should take one “old lady”, one “school kid”, one “Russian”
    uniform to lull or dampen the alertness of highly weaponized
    security forces, in the very way a fruit-fly spoils a broth.
    Mr Vinatier’s benefiting the Chechen’s with an extra “t” can
    be read as an ominous forewarning that even one “t” too many
    (as in ‘only one’ Terrorist)should suffice not only to wreak
    havoc at the Sochi events but also to expose a l l Chechens
    in Russia, as a people, at highest existential risk – again.

    Jose V. Ciprut

  • Not a word about the Saudi role?

    Quote from Prince Bandar:
    "I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi on the Black Sea next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us, and they will not move in the Syrian territory’s direction without coordinating with us. "


    The only way to counter terrorism is to terrorize the terrorists by taking the war silently to their doorsteps. Kill off the sources of finance and assassinate self-styled emirs, imams and mullahs. Secretly put a price and reward on the head of Bandar bin Sultan.

  • Since Bandar Bush admitted to Mr. Putin that Saudi Arabia controls the Chechen groups, any terrorist attacks related to the games should elicit immediate Russian retaliation upon Riyadh.

  • wurman

    Your link to Dr. Vinatier has a significant typo: you want to show "Thomas More Institute," not Moore, and send the reader elsewhere than your own site map.

    It seems to me that the potential threat at Sochi will be a lone wolf operative working as suicide bomber, sniper, or slasher attacking specific athletes from targeted nations. Even a simple-minded acid thrower at a US, Russian, or Chinese athlete is more likely than a coordinated attack–as was seen at Munich. It is also conceivable an athlete from some aggrieved group may attack an Intl. Olympic Comm. official from one of the dominant nations. There are also possible problems with a minority Sunni Moslem population in Sochi itself, dissident Armenian groups, and the history of Nagorno-Karabakh tensions with Azerbaijan, which has only a testy cease fire between the two factions.

    There is also a very high potential for an attack by some religiously motivated homophobe on an openly homosexual athlete that has worldwide publicity implications.

  • Mike

    Something new is on the rise. These guys and their tactics have been moved out and are now being used by other groups. Al Shaabab recently took control of a shopping mall in Africa and seems to be on the rise. The group, previously only associated with shipping piracy and other such actions until that incident had never been capable of (Due to training and lack of operational coordination) carrying out these types of attacks. I believe that these groups are now being run by a new leader who took over after Bin Laden was killed. This guy uses tactics that were first seen in Russia. The Nairobi attack on the Westgate center shopping mall was similar to the attack Chechen rebels used to take over a ballet in Russia. This new figure is someone who Is militarily trained and knows how to organize his people. He is “NOT” a bin Laden wannabe. This guy is ready to do things differently and will do more damage to the world soon if not eliminated soon.

  • Alvaro DJ Estaba

    Véase la suave mano rusa (sovietica???) en cuanto a su trato de los insurgentes. Pero no pueden controlarlos totalmente. El cuento del cuero de ganado venezolano que lo pisas por aquí y se levanta por alla.

  • Johhny Be Good

    The way to defeat terrorists is to terrorise them more than they terrorise us. Exterminate their parasitic leadership. Choke there supply routes, bankrupt them and supply them with booby trapped weapons. Place large bounties on their heads and watch them turn on each other.

  • lets see

    if Emir of Caucasus Emirate say should take into account..his speech never be void..Sochi is economically, politically high level target..and in coming days we will see if Caucasus Emirate fighters can cabaple to make a blow its enemy or the way after Sochi war will be more visible in the whole region according to invader Russians reactions against Sochi’s nightmare…because I believe there will be no olympics games in Emirate territory..

  • If Putin does dare to apply the "Bush Doctrine" in response to these latest terrorist attacks, it will rain cruise missiles in Riyadh. What happens if Saudi money no longer props-up American, Israeli and French economies? How long can the shaky American economy survive on $10.00/gallon gasoline? I am afraid that Bush and Obama have let the rats out of their cages and they have shit in every food bin. There is no way out of this mess without going through an even bigger mess. All eyes should be on Russia and Riyadh.


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