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The Sochi Olympics: Understanding Terroristic Threats Emanating From the Caucasus Emirate

Michael Heiman via Getty Images

In July 2013, Doku Umarov declared his will to disrupt the Sochi Olympics and what he described as "satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors". He called for all Muslims and his followers to use any methods, including violent ones, in order to achieve this goal. With the most recent suicide attacks in Volgograd killing more than 30 people, certain experts have claimed that Umarov and his jihadist organization, the Caucasus Emirate, represent a major threat for the upcoming Olympics. Although the suicide-attacks were not claimed by Umarov or the Caucasus Emirate, the Russian government quickly re-asserted Umarov's role and his jihadist affiliation. However, this narrative put forward by the Russian state and the international media depicts an inaccurate image of the Caucasus Emirate and the threat it represents for the Sochi Olympics. By discussing two prevalent and recurring storylines, one can better assess the potential of a terrorist threat for the Olympics.

Myth 1: The Caucasus Emirate is a strictly jihadist organization affiliated with al-Qaeda and other Salafist groups in the world.

Established at the end of 2007 on the remaining elements of the nationalist Chechen insurgent fighters and their North Caucasus, the Caucasus Emirate adopted an ideological platform based on al-Qaeda and other Salafist organizations. They started advocating for the establishment of a caliphate from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea ruled by Shariah law. Insurgents in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria rapidly reframed their struggle along sectarian lines between traditionalists and Salafists. At the same time, as several Salafist leaders of the movement were killed between 2008 and 2011, one observed a steady return to a more nationalistic and traditional ideology by Umarov and his inner circle. If his speeches remain Islamic by nature, the objectives of the Chechen insurgents evolved along a more nationalistic agenda.

If one looks carefully at Umarov's statement against the Sochi Olympics and its ideological roots, the Chechen leader did not directly reference the link between his organization and the global Salafi jihad -- a logical follow-up from his prudent stance on the Boston marathon attacks when he distanced himself from the events. Although Islamist by nature in their main objectives, the Caucasus Emirate remains a heterogeneous organization composed of very different and self-sufficient insurgent cells. The threat for the Olympics comes from the smaller terrorist cells that seek to achieve instant world exposure in the name of global jihad and not directly from Umarov's inner circle.

Myth 2: Most of the suicide bombers in Russia are Chechen insurgents' widows seeking revenge.

Based on the Dubrovka attacks in 2002 and the wave of suicide bombings in Russia between 2000 and 2004, the concept of "black widow" gained popularity in the Russian press and foreign media. According to this concept, women involved in suicide bombings in Russia were pushed into violence as their insurgent Islamic "husbands" were killed by Russian forces. If this narrative accurately depicts the actions of certain suicide-bombers, it oversimplifies our understanding of a much more complex phenomenon where revenge is associated more largely with the structure of the Chechen society and the traumatic experience of the two wars. After a lull of more than five years, the wave of suicide-bombers in Russia restarted in 2009 and included the Metro attacks in Moscow in 2010, the Domodedovo airport attack in 2011, and the most recent attacks in Volgograd. This time, the "profile" of the suicide-bombers changed radically as more men and ethnic Russians were responsible for the attacks. Although Russian and foreign media kept the simplistic narrative of the "black widow," the new dynamics of suicide-bombings in the North Caucasus complicate the security pattern for the Olympics

In the case of possible attacks against the Olympic venue in Sochi or in Kabardino-Balkaria, it is most likely possible that a small insurgent group will seek to use newly ethnic Russian converts to Salafism or foreigners, such as Tamerlan Tsarnaev and William Plotnikov, as suicide-bombers in order to bypass Russian security cordons. Russian security services have ramped up their religious profiling against known local Salafists in the region, especially women, as they still believe that "black-widows" represent the most important threat for the Olympics. They even collected DNA samples from Salafist women in order to identify possible terrorist network associations following attacks. This religious profiling is not useless per-se; however, it does not address or protect the Olympic venue against the more recent threat emanating from recent converted individuals employed by small terrorist cells in the region.