The Olympics are a rare chance for countries to come together in the spirit of international goodwill and allow their finest athletes to compete on a world stage. And, as such, they're a great target for terrorists. It’s no secret that these Olympics are being held in a region, the Caucasus, associated with quite a bit of historical trauma and current unrest. And so experts have spent countless hours combing the websites of terrorist organizations, reading fatwas, and watching videos in an attempt to find clues about potential attacks.
The foremost expert on Islamist terrorism in Russia is Gordon Hahn, who pays particular attention to the Caucasus. In his paper “The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin Threat to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics,” he focuses on the Caucasus Emirate, the terrorist group believed to be most likely to strike at the Olympics. They are a sort of Caucasus version of al Qaeda, and are probably best known in the West as the group that trained Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Hahn outlines the three types of attack that are most likely to occur, or that are of greatest concern in Sochi—a hotel strike, a suicide bombing, and the use of chemical weapons. The hotel attack he describes is essentially an expanded version of the 2008 hotel attack in Mumbai, India. That attack was actually 12 attacks made over the course of four days, including the three-day takeover of a hotel. Overall, 164 people were killed, and more than 300 were wounded.
A potential repeat of the Mumbai attacks would require a lot of weapons. And in May 2013, Russian security forces found them. They raided several weapons caches in Abkhazia (while formally a territory in the Republic of Georgia, it is now effectively part of Russia) and found a veritable arsenal, including: “two antitank rocket launchers, three shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles, a mortar with 36 ordinances, a flame thrower, 29 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 15 anti-tank and anti-infantry mines, 39 grenades, 2 machine guns, a sniper’s rifle, and 12 improvised explosive devices, among others.” The Russian security forces claimed that these weapons were to be used in terror attacks in Sochi. Regardless, the sheer amount of weaponry seized is evidence that its owners weren’t thinking small.
The second type of attack concerning experts is a time-tested favorite: suicide bombers, the poor man’s cruise missile. All of the construction work leading up to the Olympics forced Russia to import thousands of workers from all over the region—and any one of them could be a suicide bomber in waiting. Moreover, a branch of the Caucasus Emirate specializes in recruiting ethnic Russians as suicide bombers. Police in Russia (like police everywhere) have been known to profile suspects based on race and ethnicity, and ethnic Russians tend to attract less attention.
In 2004, terrorists from the Caucasus attacked and seized a school, holding more than a thousand people hostage. The terrorists reportedly used weapons hidden in the school earlier by conspirators posing as repairmen. Again, the construction no doubt offered many opportunities to employ a similar tactic.
Third, there are chemical weapons. Recently issued fatwas, which are used by terrorist groups to set and announce policy, lifted a self-imposed moratorium on targeting civilians and the use of WMD. Since fighters from the Caucasus Emirate have been fighting with great distinction in Syria, it's theoretically possible that the organization has been able to lay claim to chemical weapons seized from Syrian government stockpiles. In truth, chemical weapons aren’t particularly easy to use in an effective way. However, as a weapon of terror, floating, creeping death is hard to beat.
Finally, Hahn notes that the focus on Sochi might just be the mother of all diversions. With Russian attention on the Olympics, jihadist groups might use the opportunity to strike Moscow or St. Petersburg, or to assassinate high-ranking officials. But regardless of the outcome, the activities and statements of various jihadi groups—particularly the Caucasus Emirate—over the last few years indicate that athletes haven't been the only ones working hard for the opportunity to bask in the Olympic spotlight.