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The threat of terrorism at the Winter Olympics has its own symbolic effect

Commentary: Heightened Russian security will make terrorist attacks unlikely, but just the threat will be enough to drive news coverage, determine policies and distort the events.
Volgograd 12414Enlarge
A destroyed trolleybus stands on a street in Volgograd on December 30, 2013 after ten people were killed in a bombing on the packed vehicle, the second attack in the city in two days after a suicide strike on its main train station, officials said. The new attack will further heighten fears about security at the Winter Olympic Games which are due to open on February 7 in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi, which lies 690 kilometres (425 miles) southwest of Volgograd. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama—Unconfirmed reports of the death of Doku Umarov have done little to dampen talk of the terrorist threat at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Last summer, Umarov, the leader of a jihadist group based in the Northern Caucasus, promised to use “maximum force” to derail the Sochi games. Two suicide bombings in December in the Russian city of Volgograd killed 34 people and sent international speculation into overdrive that Umarov’s group, the Caucasus Emirate, might well have the means to make good on the threat.

But last week, Chechnya’s pro-Kremlin president announced that Umarov was killed in a gunfight with security forces. Doubts, however, remain about the reliability of the claim. Putin and Russia’s counterterrorism forces have been silent on the issue, despite the fact that they have the most to gain by touting Umarov’s death.

It matters little, for Umarov’s control over the violent campaign he purports to lead is indirect at best. Umarov has acted more as a figurehead, encouraging loosely affiliated cells to carry out terrorism against Russia, the latest chapter in a lengthy struggle to establish a breakaway, radical Islamist state in the Northern Caucasus.

In fact, soon after the announcement of Umarov’s supposed death, a video surfaced in which armed militants claimed responsibility for the Volgograd blasts on behalf of a new organization in partial fulfillment of Umarov’s anti-Olympics threat. It should be noted that this news also has not been authenticated.

What is significant is that Umarov’s threat and the recent bombings have primed the international community for attacks that may not come.

Everyone understands why the Olympic games are a coveted target for terrorists: they are a spectacle nearly unrivaled in terms of saturated media coverage and international viewership. Any organization with an agenda tries to capitalize on the event to their benefit.

But now the gravitational pull of the Olympics is so great that even the threat of terrorism drives news coverage, determines policies and distorts the events.

Although most Americans and Europeans would be hard-pressed to find Volgograd or Chechnya on a map and likely have not felt overly concerned about the Northern Caucasus, they are now paying attention.

Whether or not Umarov is dead or his terrorists succeed in carrying out attacks in Sochi during the Olympics, the topic is now on everyone’s lips and thus the symbolic blow has already been struck.

In all likelihood, the Olympics will be free of terrorism. President Vladimir Putin and the Russian authorities will spare no expense–the Sochi games are already estimated to cost more than all previous Winter Olympics combined – and have no qualms about infringing mightily on civil liberties to insure that the Sochi events are as safe as possible.

Russia will employ a massive security presence of more than 50,000 police and troops, ever-present surveillance by spy drones and 5,500 closed-circuit cameras, constant identification and car license checks, and the use of physical barriers to control vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

Moreover, a so-called “electronic dome” will likely make it possible for authorities to eavesdrop on all e-mail, phone calls and other communications across the area. While no one place can be made entirely secure and safe from terrorism, Sochi will come pretty close during the games.

The problem is that terrorists do not have to strike the obvious target to succeed. The violent behavior of a terrorist organization can be likened to water flowing downhill: when it is impeded along one path, it nearly always finds another.

If terrorists find it too difficult or costly to attack a particular target–in this case the Olympics–they will try to find others that are more vulnerable. That helps explain the Volgograd bombings. And it also might mean that other locations are attacked within Russia in the next few months.

If such terrorist diversions occur during the games, then the impact on the Olympics and the symbolic achievement of the Caucasus Emirate would still be great. If it were to happen shortly thereafter, then it will once again be the Russians who will mostly be left to grieve for the victims and ponder the significance.

The geographic and temporal proximity of the Volgograd attacks to Sochi’s Olympics mean that Umarov–dead or alive–and the Caucasus Emirate have already succeeded in their short-term goals: to inflict symbolic harm on the games and turn attention back to their list of grievances.

The greatest tragedy is the pointlessness of the whole exercise, since the possibility of creating a radical Islamist emirate in the region has never been more remote.

But given the depth of hatred and resentment that many in the region harbor against the Russians, the threat of terrorism will likely simmer well into the future.

Randall Law is associate professor of history at Birmingham-Southern College and author of Terrorism: A History (Polity, 2009).
 

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