Athletes and spectators attending next month's Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi appear to be facing an unprecedented threat as authorities hunt desperately for three potential suicide bombers, warning residents and businesses that "terrorists may be among us now."
Setting the Winter Olympics in Sochi, just a few hundred kilometres from the de facto war zone of Russia's North Caucasus, was always a risk. Now the International Olympic Committee is facing a nightmare scenario previously dismissed as alarmist.
Leaflets distributed to hotels in Sochi warned of at least three women – believed to be so-called "black widows" whose Islamist militant husbands had been killed fighting Russian forces – who are thought to be on the loose and intent on carrying out attacks in the Sochi area.
If true, the reputation of Russian President Vladimir Putin is also under serious threat. Mr. Putin came to power 15 years ago promising to crush militants from Chechnya whom he blamed for a string of mysterious bombings in Moscow and other cities. The Sochi Olympics are meant to show the world that Russia's period of instability is over, and that the Kremlin has restored control over the country's restive southern fringe.
Mr. Putin has said Russia will do "whatever it takes" to protect the Olympics from attack. However, the United States, which has criticized Russia for not sharing enough information about Olympic security, has said it will have two warships on standby in the Black Sea to evacuate its citizens in the event of an attack or other emergency.
Security personnel are visible at train stations and airports, and at tourist sites such as Red Square, in Moscow and other Russian cities The Globe and Mail has visited over the past two weeks, though measures don't appear any more intense than a few months ago. Members of the Chechen community in Moscow said that while they expected police sweeps as the Olympics approached, that hadn't yet begun.
The three women are believed to have already penetrated the thick security cordon set up around Sochi. A leaflet distributed to Sochi hotels last week warns that a suspect identified as Ruzana Ibragimova was believed to be in the city and "may be used by the ringleaders of [illegal armed groups] to organize terrorist acts in the zone of the 2014 Olympics."
The warning was accompanied by two photographs of Ms. Ibragimova, one in which she's wearing an Islamic hijab that covers her hair and clings tightly to her face, and one in which she's shown in secular dress, her dark hair falling to her shoulders. She's described as having a limp, a scar on her cheek and a left arm that doesn't bend.
The warning says Ms. Ibragimova is 22 years old, and is believed to be the widow of a rebel killed by Russian forces in the republic of Dagestan earlier this month.
Other leaflets warned that another two women, 26-year-old Zaira Aliyeva and 34-year-old Dzhannet Tsakhayeva, were said to have been trained "to perpetrate acts of terrorism" and warned they were "probably among us."
Dagestan is a small, largely Muslim region about 500 kilometres east of Sochi. Fighting between Russian troops and Islamist militants, once largely confined to the neighbouring republic of Chechnya, has surged in Dagestan in recent years. According to human-rights groups, at least 700 people were killed by violence across the North Caucasus region last year.
Because they often slip through security checks with less scrutiny than men receive, the so-called "black widows" have been used for more than a decade by militant leaders to carry out attacks deep inside Russia.
Black widows are known to have taken part in at least 17 major attacks around the country, including the bombings of buses, trains and passenger planes. Two black widows were among the fighters who stormed an elementary school in the city of Beslan in 2004, taking students and teachers hostage and provoking a bloody firefight with security forces that left 334 people dead, more than half of them children.
Reports about one or more "black widows" being in Sochi follow the appearance of a video posted online that ominously warns of a "present" being prepared for those attending the Winter Olympics. "We have prepared a … present for you [Mr. Putin] and all those tourists who will come over," says one of two men shown in the video wearing what appear to be suicide bomb belts.
The video said the two men were responsible for a pair of December suicide bombings that struck a train station and a trolleybus in the city of Volgograd, 800 kilometres northeast of Sochi, killing 34 people. The men were said to be members of Vilayat Dagestan, a previously unknown group that claims to have links to Ansar al-Sunna, an Islamist faction fighting in Iraq.
Penetrating the security around Sochi would be no easy task. The Russian government has mobilized some 37,000 troops and put them on combat alert for the Olympics, which are set on the Black Sea coast and separated from the rest of the North Caucasus by a mountain range.
Local bloggers have posted photos of anti-aircraft missiles set up to protect the city from aerial attack, and the local air force commander told reporters that four squadrons of MiG and Sukhoi fighter planes have been allocated to defend the city. (Anti-aircraft missiles were also placed on rooftops around London before the 2012 Summer Games.) Strict restrictions have been placed on the movements of people and cars for the Olympic period. Only vehicles with Sochi licence plates or official Olympic accreditation are allowed on the roads until the Paralympic Games end on March 21. All visitors to the city must register with a police station within three days of arrival, or face expulsion. Businesses in Sochi have been ordered to buy enough supplies to survive through the Olympic period without receiving any outside deliveries. The Kremlin has also ordered communications companies to provide the Federal Security Bureau unprecedented access to all phone and e-mail traffic in Sochi.
In an interview, Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov said he was confident that Russia would be able to host a safe Olympic Games. "The Russian authorities are trying to do their best. The fact that the terrorist attacks happened in Volgograd, not Sochi, shows the terrorist organizations went to Volgograd because they couldn't do it in Sochi."
But he acknowledged that a successful attack on the Olympics would be a personal blow to Mr. Putin, who wants to send a message to the world that Russia is now a stable, successful country that has put the debilitating wars of the 1990s and early 2000s behind it. "If a terrorist attack happens in Sochi, it will show that Russia didn't leave the 1990s."
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