Veteran security consultant Bill Rathburn hopes that he’s wrong about the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia, but he has more than a hunch that he’s not.
“The security threat is higher than it’s ever been in the history of the Olympic Games,” Rathburn told Yahoo News. “In my opinion, it’s not a matter of whether there will be some incident, it’s just a matter of how bad it’s going to be.”
Rathburn, a former police chief in Los Angeles and Dallas, directed security for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta and served in various planning roles for six other Olympics.
Rathburn’s biggest concern is with Doku Umarov, described by some as “Russia’s bin Laden.” Six months ago the Chechen rebel leader threatened attacks on civilians in Russia and urged Islamic separatists to use force to disrupt the Olympics, which he described as "satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors."
Since Umarov’s threat, three suicide bombers have killed more than 40 people and injured more than 100 in Volgograd, a major transportation hub 430 miles northeast of Sochi, a resort town where the Games will take place. The two most recent attacks came just a few weeks ago.
“To my knowledge this is the only Olympics that have had an announced, credible threat well prior to the Games,” Rathburn said. “Unless the Russians can take down the leadership and a significant number of that group or his followers before the Olympics, I think they’re in for some major problems.”
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The Winter Olympics will take place Feb. 7-23 in Sochi, a coastal city of 350,000 along the Black Sea and at the western edge of the Caucasus Mountains. The mountain region has for generations been a hotbed of ethnic and religious strife between native Islamic peoples and Russian forces.
The Games have long been a high-profile target for terrorists. At the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed by a Palestinian terrorist group. In 1996, American Eric Rudolph detonated a bomb at Centennial Olympic Park during the Summer Games in Atlanta. The blast resulted in the deaths of two people and injured more than 100. Rudolph is serving life in prison.
To protect the next month’s Winter Olympics, the Russian government has set up a so-called “Ring of Steel” perimeter around Sochi. The unprecedented secure zone, which is 60 miles long and 25 miles wide, will mean near-total surveillance of residents, visitors and athletes. Drones will be deployed in the skies, speedboats will patrol the coast and sonar will reportedly be used detect submarines.
“The level of security around Sochi will probably displace any threat to elsewhere in southern Russia,” says Mark Galeotti, a global affairs professor at New York University and an expert on crime and security in Russia. “Honestly, I'd see cities such as Volgograd, Stavropol and Rostov-on-Don as under a greater threat than Sochi.”
Protecting visitors en route to the Games is a rising fear. Two of the three recent suicide bombings in Volgograd occurred on buses, and the third was at a train station. The Sochi airport has limited direct flights from foreign cities, but does have daily flights arriving from Moscow and St. Petersburg.
“I would get into the heart of the security perimeter as quickly as possible, avoid public transportation and stay within the secured venues,” Rathburn said.
The U.S. ski and snowboard team has hired a private security firm to have as many as five aircraft on standby in case team members need to evacuate Sochi quickly. Last week the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert cautioning Americans who plan on attending the Games.
“What it tells me is that the State Department is very, very concerned or they wouldn’t have done that,” Rathburn said.
But Galeotti said he interpreted the State Department alert to be more of an advisory than a warning.
“Despite the headiness about it, the actual text is pretty objective and really based on the existing Russia travel advice,” Galeotti wrote in an email to Yahoo News.
Like Rathburn, Galeotti believes the radicals will likely try something to get attention during the Games. But he believes they are too unorganized to pull off a grand attack. In the meantime, he’s encouraging a “keep calm and carry on” approach.
“It's like taking a journey by car; there is a genuine risk of an accident, even if you do everything right,” Galeotti wrote in an email from Russia. “You do everything you can to make sure you are not doing anything to increase the risk; you take what precautions you can to minimize the impact of any potential risk (e.g., wear a seatbelt), but ultimately you have to swallow that danger and drive on. That is how you cope with this appreciable, but not high, terrorist threat.”
Follow Jason Sickles on Twitter (@jasonsickles).