If the threat of renegade female suicide bombers wasn’t bad enough, a panel of counterterrorism experts in Washington are raising a new security concern ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi: The possibility of a deadly sarin gas attack by the region’s Islamist militants.
With the opening ceremony just days away, Russian authorities have stopped at nothing to form a so-called "ring of steel" around the Black Sea resort town, deploying thousands of security forces, installing high-tech surveillance equipment and spending an estimated $2 billion on safety measures alone. U.S. and Russian officials have expressed confidence in Moscow’s security preparations, and there’s no evidence that Russian insurgents have obtained chemical weapons. Still, some experts remain concerned about an ambitious, mass-casualty attack.
The main security threat to the games comes from separatist and jihadi groups in the North Caucasus regions of Dagestan and Chechnya, some 300 miles from Sochi. Since Russia won its bid to host the Olympics in 2007, the groups have pledged to wreak havoc on the games unless all Russian forces withdraw from the North Caucasus.
On Friday, Gordon Hahn, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, spoke at length about the threat of a chemical weapons attack in Sochi due to the commingling of jihadist forces in the caucuses and Syria’s three-year civil war.
"There’s a possibility that the rebels in fact do have [chemical] weapons," he said.
Hahn has written about Russia’s Islamist threat for CSIS and is also an analyst at the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, which analyzes global terrorism threats and geopolitics.
At the moment, there are two groups of Islamist militants from the North Caucasus fighting in Syria: Jund al-Khilafah, which fights under the umbrella of the Nusra Front, and Aish Al Muhajireen Wal Asnar, whose former top commander is now leading the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters in northern Syria. Hahn’s fear is that militants fighting in Syria could obtain chemical weapons stolen from the Syrian government and put them to use in Sochi.
"The possibility that … Al Qaeda and the Caucasus Emirate would team up to somehow get chemical weapons into the North Caucasus for an attack on Sochi can not be excluded," he said.
Some reports have already suggested that Syrian rebels obtained sarin stockpiles, but the veracity of those reports remains in dispute. Jeffrey Mankoff, the deputy director of CSIS’s Russia and Eurasia program, said that jihadists will do everything they can to disrupt the games. "This is a golden opportunity for the insurgents to make a point," he said.
The panel of experts, which included Thomas de Wall, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Juan Zarate, a CSIS counterterrorism expert, were more pessimistic about the security situation in Sochi than U.S. administration officials have been in recent days.
In an interview that aired Friday, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked President Obama if he’d encourage people he knew to attend the games given the prospect of suicide bombings like the one that killed dozens of people in Volgograd in December.
"I’d tell them that I believe Sochi is safe and that there are always some risks in these large international gatherings," Obama said.
Earlier this week, FBI Director James Comey assured a Senate panel that the bureau and its Russian counterpart were working cooperatively to ensure the safety of the event. And at a Google Hangout Thursday hosted by the State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf said "we want everyone to go and have fun, to go cheer on Team USA." She added that "more than anyone," the Russians were committed to providing a safe environment for tourists and athletes.
In the next few weeks, Olympics fans from around the world will find out which predictions were correct.