In 2007, when Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Guatemala City to support the country’s bid to host this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, he knew that winning would be the easiest step in the process. Many joked that only Russia would propose a subtropical seaside resort for a winter-sports competition.
However, while concerns about a lack of snow in the surrounding mountains, or about Russia’s ability to build the needed infrastructure in time, have gradually receded since Russia was awarded the Games, one major apprehension has remained: the threat of terrorism.
Sochi is located in the North Caucasus region, which, following the Soviet Union’s dissolution, experienced a long and brutal armed insurgency in Chechnya, while neighboring Dagestan, in particular, later became a hotbed of Islamist extremism and terrorism.
Putin gained widespread support among the Russian people through his decisive and ruthless handling of separatism in the North Caucasus — support that helped persuade then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin to appoint Putin as his successor in 1999.
Once in office, Putin — with a military victory and a policy of reconciliation — managed to pacify Chechnya, leaving it more a feudal khanate associated with Russia than a real part of the Russian Federation. As a result, for the last dozen years, there has been peace with — and within — Chechnya.
Terrorism has turned out to be a more stubborn challenge. As the war in Chechnya was drawing to a close in 2002, hundreds of people in a Moscow theater were taken hostage by terrorists from the North Caucasus. Similarly, in 2004, hundreds of schoolchildren in Beslan, North Ossetia, were seized by an armed group. The death toll in these two attacks alone topped 500.
In 2005, armed Islamists seized Nalchik, a regional capital in the North Caucasus, and held it for a day. In 2010, at least 40 people died in two explosions in the Moscow metro set off by suicide bombers from Dagestan. The following year, 37 people were killed in a similar fashion at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.
The attacks have continued, despite Putin’s stated willingness to authorize strikes against suspected terrorists “wherever they may be.”
It is fair to say that terrorists have been at war with Russia from almost the exact moment the Soviet Union dissolved.
However, it is no longer a fight for independence for a particular region in the Caucasus. Instead, it is a fight to establish a Caucasus caliphate based on Shariah law.
The terrorists’ methods have also changed. Their tactic of choice is no longer armed insurgency — as in the 1990s — or raids by groups of militants — as in the 2000s — but individual acts of terror.
The targets range from police stations and liquor stores in the Caucasus to mainstream Muslim clerics in Tatarstan to ordinary people elsewhere in Russia.
The Tsarnaev brothers — responsible for last year’s Boston Marathon bombings — exemplify this brand of terrorism, aimed at modern secular society in general, whether in Russia or elsewhere.
It has been clear from the beginning that the Sochi Olympics, which epitomize everything that the terrorists oppose, would be a likely target. The recent bombings in Volgograd, in southern Russia, and Pyatigorsk, in the North Caucasus — which claimed three dozen lives — were probably designed to send the message to Russians that they are defenseless, while communicating to the rest of the world that Sochi is too dangerous to visit.