The Naval Postgraduate School & The U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Security Heats Up as the Olympic Torch Nears Sochi: Is Russia Doing Enough To Freeze Terrorism at the 2014 Winter Games?

The Olympic Games have historically been a target for terrorist attacks. Since 1972, 16 of the countries to Olympic Torchbearerhost the Olympics experienced terrorist attacks in the year or months approaching the Games. With the international presence and heightened media coverage, the Olympics provides a stage that few malicious actors can resist. Today, the scene is set in Sochi, Russia, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised a "safe and enjoyable Games," due to open tomorrow. Now, it is up to Putin's security forces to deliver on that promise.  

On the choice of the location for the Games, Sochi has been the topic of debate for many countries with security risks in mind. The geography itself is host to both tourists visiting Sochi on the Black Sea, and terrorists threatening security in the North Caucasus region. The terrorist organization Caucasus Emirate (Imarat Kavkaz) made specific threats against the Sochi Winter Olympics. Just recently, a car bomb in Pyatigorsk (170 miles east of Sochi) killed three people on December 27, and two bombs at a train station killed 18 and wounded 44 in Volograd (430 miles from Sochi) on December 29. The largest hotspot for terrorist attacks (by a combination of incident fatalities and injuries) is East of Sochi, nearby along the border of Georgia. Intelligence agencies in Russia have been on high alert for terrorist activity in the region, and have dissolved many threats associated with the Games. Still, the question on everyone's minds is: is the extra attention enough?

In the weeks and months leading up to the opening ceremony, Russia has invested billions of dollars to create infrastructure and venues for the Olympics. Where there was not much city-like infrastructure before around Sochi, new hotels and sports venues have been constructed. There are reports that the new infrastructure has not had the chance to be thoroughly tested, which leaves doubts in the minds of travelers headed to Sochi that they will be greeted with plush accomodations. The potential lack of hospitality infrastructure has led the U.S. Department of State to issue a Travel Alert to U.S. Citizens attending the Games. The warning suggests that although the sport venues themselves are laden with security personnel and cyber surveillance, upon leaving the venues, Americans may be targeted by thieves, unlicensed salesmen, or terrorists. Even more concerning, the pressure to provide hospitality to tourists may encourage business owners to skirt around established security protocols. Furthermore, the U.S. Olympic team has been advised to remove any "Team USA" apparel when traveling outside of the competition areas. With thousands of sports fans and over 300 U.S. athletes traveling to Sochi for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, security collaborations between the U.S. and Russia have been tight.

Several U.S. organizations have weighed in on the security preparations and terrorist threats surrounding this year's Games. The U.S. Department of State Bureau Diplomatic Security (OSAC) released a report in December, highlighting "cyber security, protest activity, regional terrorist threats, and the targeting of private sector assets," among others, as concerns for the U.S. citizens traveling to Sochi. Crisisgroup, an international foundation that works to prevent conflict worldwide, released a report, "Too Far, Too Fast: Sochi, Tourism and Conflict in the Caucasus," which examines the heavy security measures that have been put in place to "suppress the symptoms of the North Caucasus insurgency" and provides recommendations to Russia on how to improve overall security. The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) released a Background Report, "Terrorism and the Olympics: Sochi, Russia 2014" that reviews patterns of terrorist activity in Russia between 1992 and 2012. The general consensus of all agencies' reports is that Russia may be tight on security, but that security itself may still not be enough to prevent terrorists or other maligners from targeting the Games. Even when lessons-learned from previous Games are applied, the security environment is not consistent from country to country, and protocols must be built from the ground up.

For each of the countries represented at the Olympic Games, individual athletes are both competitors and ambassadors, and the two roles make them high-value targets for aspiring terrorists. The world will be watching as medals are awarded, with the hope that the Games' celebratory mood will not be dampened by strict security measures--either too few or too many. With so many ready to offer criticism on this year's Olympics, it may only take one minor slip to crack the thin ice under Putin's feet. Still, Russia has invested much time and effort into ensuring the safety of athletes and spectators, and whether it is awarded a "gold medal" for security will depend on the next four weeks.

Find out more on the 2014 Winter Olympic Games on HSDL (login may be required):

Confronting the Terror Threat at the Olympics

Terrorism and the Olympics: Sochi, Russia 2014

Reporters' Guide for Covering the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia

Sochi: Security and Counterterrorism at the 2014 Winter Olympics

2014 Sochi Olympics: A Patchwork of Challenges

2014 Security Games [infographic]

2014 Winter Olympics: The Terrorism Threat