3Qs: Safety concerns in Sochi

Max Abrahms

Russian offi­cials have cre­ated a 1,500 square-​​mile secu­rity zone around Sochi to pro­tect the Winter Olympics from ter­rorist attacks like last month’s sui­cide bomb­ings in the southern city of Vol­gograd. But news reports indi­cate that the country’s self-​​described ring of steel may have been pen­e­trated by a 22-​​year-​​old female sui­cide bomber, a “black widow” of an Islamic mil­i­tant seeking to avenge the death of her hus­band who was killed by Russian forces. We asked Max Abrahms, a ter­rorism the­o­rist and assis­tant pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence, to assess con­cerns sur­rounding the safety of the Games, which begin on Feb. 7.

A Russian rider carrying the country's flag accompanied the torch relay through the streets of Moscow. Here, Max Abrahms, a terrorism theorist and assistant professor of political science, assesses the safety of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Photo by iStock.

One security analyst noted that Russia would “go to real extremes to protect the athletes and the venues,” but questioned whether tourists and families of the Olympians would receive adequate protection. Which population do you think is more vulnerable—the athletes or the civilians?

Civilians are generally soft targets that are relatively easy for terrorists to strike. The Olympians themselves will be provided special security. A security perimeter around the competitions and Olympic village will pose challenges for terrorists to overcome. But many civilians will be outside this protected area, exposing them to potential attack. Chechen leaders have commanded their foot soldiers to attack civilians, so terrorists have both the will and a way of doing so.

In an effort to help secure Sochi, the U.S. and Russian militaries have reportedly discussed using American technology to detect and disrupt cellphone or radio signals used by militants to detonate improvised explosive devices. What’s your take on this development in light of Russia’s perceived reticence to share information about terrorist threats?

After the U.S. experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s not surprising that the military has developed unique capabilities at thwarting IEDs. The U.S. should share such technology for the safety of the Olympics, even if Moscow remains reluctant to share sensitive information about terrorist threats. Doing so would help not only to bolster security, but also induce greater Russian reciprocity.

A recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times argued that the Olympics have become too big a terrorist target, that the spectacle of the Winter Games in Sochi “just isn’t worth another Munich 1972 or Atlanta 1996.” Does the potential risk posed by terrorists in Sochi outweigh the reward of bringing together 6,000 athletes from 85 countries?

Absolutely not! Security is, of course, paramount. But the Olympics Games are important, too, both for sport as well as international relations. Although terrorists may target the Sochi Games, only a tiny fraction of people there would be directly affected. Let the Games go on!

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