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Security concerns arise for Sochi Olympics

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a high-stakes risk with the Winter Games in Sochi, guaranteeing that they will be safe despite their setting on territory awash in grievance and terror. Olympic officials have accepted his assurances, but as the opening ceremony nears, so do the jitters.

In the past few days, police in Sochi have begun a search for three women identified as potential suicide bombers. On Sunday, an Islamist militant group posted a video threatening an attack on the Games. Last month, suicide bombers struck at the main train station and on a trolley bus in Volgograd, killing 34. Nearly every day, police engage in shootouts with militants in Dagestan, 380 miles to the east of Sochi.

Putin has deployed up to 60,000 police personnel, troops and special forces to Sochi — double the number Britain enlisted in London for the 2012 Summer Games. The security services have the technology in place to monitor phone calls, emails and Internet activity in Sochi, among Russians and foreigners alike. In November, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave an order permitting the collection of telephone and email metadata from foreign journalists, Olympic officials and athletes, according to journalists here.

On Tuesday in Brussels, U.S. military officials proposed sharing techniques to combat improvised explosive devices if they were compatible with Russian equipment, according to a dispatch by American Forces Press Service, the Pentagon's internal news outlet.

Pentagon officials also disclosed that the U.S. European Command was drawing up plans to have two Navy warships in the Black Sea at the time of the games in case of emergency. Navy officials declined to name the ships or give their types.

With the opening ceremony on Feb. 7 fast approaching, Putin told television journalists in an interview broadcast over the weekend that a prepared Russia knows what it must do.

"We have a perfect understanding of what it is, what is that threat, how to stop it, how to combat it," he said. "I hope that our law enforcement agencies will deal with it with honor and dignity, just as it was during other major sports and political events."

Still, police fliers in Sochi warning about the three suspected female terrorists have set off widespread anxiety.

The fliers included pictures of two women in veils: 26-year-old Zaira Aliyeva and 34-year-old Dzhannet Tsakhayeva. It said they had been trained "to perpetrate acts of terrorism."

A third suspsect, 22-year-old Ruzanna Ibragimova, the wife of a slain Islamist militant, could be in Sochi, the leaflets said.

The fliers raised a widespread fear of the widows of dead militants from the North Caucasus, near Sochi, who might carry out suicide bombings in revenge. Known as "black widows," they have haunted the Russian imagination since two women blew themselves up on Moscow subway trains in 2010. Warnings about these kinds of suspects, or other potential terrorists, are not uncommon in Moscow.

"It's normal for Moscow," said Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist who has written extensively about the security services. "But Sochi is completely different. It's supposed to be a closed fortress."

Sochi was "closed" Jan. 7, when non-Sochi cars were denied access and intense security measures went into effect. "There are patrols everywhere," said Soldatov, who remains nervous about security there.

Soldatov said that, after hostage-takings at a Moscow theater in 2002 and at a school in Beslan in 2004, the security services reformed, training to deal with large-scale attacks. "They are prepared for Beslan," he said, "but not a smaller-scale attack in Sochi."

Dagestan militants are widely perceived as the area's biggest threat, but the region boils with resentment, including among ethnic Circassians who have been aggrieved since czarist times, when they were driven from their land around Sochi and died in great numbers. And then there's pervasive corruption, raising concerns about a terrorist buying his way in.

"It's a really tough gig," said Mark Galeotti, a scholar of Russian crime and security at New York University who is in Moscow. "It's not a particularly easy place to police and control. "

Everyone will encounter more than one checkpoint, he said, so even if a bribe works once, it might not the second time. Unparalleled technology, he said, allows the ability to shut down all cellular communication very quickly if any fears arise about remote-controlled bombs. And though the Russians have not been able to infiltrate Dagestan's loose confederation of militants, there's a lesson in the daily shootouts.

"They are sending the boys out to kick down doors of everyone who has ever been a friend of a terrorist," Galeotti said, "on the theory that if people are afraid of being shot or arrested, they might not be talking about perpetrating dark deeds in Sochi."

Security concerns arise for Sochi Olympics 01/21/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 11:19pm]
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