by Andrei Soldatov
When Dokku Umarov, the leader of the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, issued a statement six months ago promising a strike on the Olympics in Sochi, Russian authorities were faced with two major questions. Experts and the secret services asked whether militants still possessed the capabilities to hit beyond the North Caucasus, and whether they had recruits willing to carry out suicide bombing attacks. Now both of those questions have been answered.
Almost two years ago Umarov promised not to attack civilians in central Russia, ostensibly in response to the large-scale anti-Putin protests in Moscow. The bombing at Domodedovo airport in January 2011 was the last large-scale suicide bombing in central Russia until late October when Volgograd was hit for the first by a female suicide bomber who killed seven people on a city bus.
These 32 months of relative calm do not mean there were no terrorist attacks at all – bombings and shootings exacted a deadly toll in the North Caucausus almost on a weekly basis.
But nobody in central Russia seemed to care.
Meanwhile Russian secret services insisted that the terrorist attacks ceased thanks to their efficiency, not because of the embargo imposed by Umarov.
After Doku Umarov’s threat against Sochi, we have now seen a series of bombings in Central Russia, all of them in Volgograd. The series are probably meant to send a message that the militants have capabilities, people and a resurgent organisation (the ringleader in charge of the 21 October Volgograd attack had already been killed by security forces but it didn’t stop terrorists targeting the train station and then a trolleybus in the same city). But unfortunately that is not the worst-case scenario. What the secret services should now presume is that the Volgograd bombings were intended as a diversion, to distract their attention from Sochi.
It has happened before, and the tactics are well known: before the Beslan school siege in North Ossetia in September 2004, two planes which took off from Moscow were brought down by female suicide bombings. Days before Chechen militants took 850 people hostage at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theatre in October 2002, a car had been blown up in a different district of the Russian capital.
Ensuring security at the Sochi Olympics was already a nightmare for the secret services long before Umarov’s statement or the bombings in Volgograd. The area’s proximity to the North Caucasus, and to the unstable and poorly governed republic of Abkhazia is one thing. The other is that the Olympics presents a tempting opportunity for many young and ambitious militants to make their name.
Over the last 12 years the strong censorship in Russian media has deprived the militants of attention, but for the Olympics the eyes of all major global news organisations will be on Sochi. The younger generation are desperate to forge a reputation for themselves, and they envy Umarov, who came to prominence in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, Russian secret services are still plagued by problems surrounding coordination and intelligence sharing between agencies and even departments, mostly due to a lack of interdepartmental trust.
In these difficult circumstances, the way in which the Russian secret services is responding to the threat looks questionable at very least. When the FSB (Federal Security Service) was tasked in 2010 with providing security for the Olympics, the agency named its main spy hunter, not the head of the counterterrorism department, as chairman of the operations staff.
The FSB has also much put effort into installing cutting-edge surveillance technologies in the Sochi area – but many of them are not intended to detect terrorists. The latest initiative, announced in November, involves the gathering of metadata on all participants of the Games, including sportsmen, judges and journalists, which will be be stored for three years. The agency is also keen to use drones, which are useless in detecting a suicide bomber, but could help in disrupting protests.
It seems the Russian secret services do not understand that maintaining control over everyone and everything (essentially the idea inherited from the Soviet past) and preventing a terrorist attack are far from being the same thing.