An expert's point of view on a current event.

When Terrorism (That Never Happened) Made Headlines in Sochi

If attacks were unlikely at the Olympic Games, why was it spun as inevitable?

Photo: VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images

The XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, ended just as they began: with an ostentatious, exhaustive, and carefully scripted celebration of Russian heritage and culture. The 17 days of athletic competition featured all the riveting performances, unexpected disappointments, and weather-related updates that one would expect.

However, there was one event that U.S. politicians and pundits discussed for months — which some described as inevitable — that never occurred: a terrorist attack.

In the lead-up to the Winter Olympics, a fear-mongering media merely listened to alarmist policymakers and privileged the aspirational statements of marginalized terrorist groups. By irresponsibly providing little context for such threatening language, the media conditioned citizens to assume that violent attacks against innocent people were a near certainty.

It all started on Jan. 19, when Vilayat Dagestan, an affiliate of insurgent group Ansar al-Sunna, released a video statement in which two Islamist militants announced an intention to carry out jihadi attacks throughout Russia and promised a "present" for Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Olympics. This video came three weeks after two suicide attacks at a train station and on a trolley bus — 400 miles from the Olympic Village in Volgograd — that collectively killed 34 and injured up to 104.

Congressional members, purportedly relying on classified briefings, subsequently made the case that Sochi was not at all secure. Rep. Mike Rogers, chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said "We can only hope that they’ll find those individuals before they’re able to penetrate any of the rings. And I don’t believe that the terrorists think they have … to have a terrorist attack on a particular venue. They just have to have some disruptive event somewhere." Rep. Peter King warned: "I cannot give [U.S. athletes] 100 percent guarantee. The fact is that these are going to be very much threatened Olympics." Rep. Michael McCaul, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, even went so far as to say that canceling the games should have been considered, saying, "I think there’s a high degree of probability that something will detonate, something will go off." The list of policymakers goes on. In short, they chose sound bites over a balanced communication of the risks posed to Americans traveling to Sochi.

News reports repeated and amplified this narrative by warning about the proliferation of "black widows," women seeking revenge for husbands or family members killed by security forces: "Urgent Search for ‘Black Widow’ Suicide Bomber, May Be Already in Sochi" was one headline. During the six months leading up to the opening ceremony, the New York Times ran 72 articles about the Olympics that mentioned the threat of terrorism. USA Today reported that most of the major sponsors of the Winter Games had prepared "ads of compassion and support that could air following any incidents of terrorism." Unsurprisingly, in a CNN/ORC poll conducted during the week prior to the opening ceremony, 57 percent of Americans surveyed believed that a terrorist attack of some sort was likely at the Olympics.

Politicians and the media could have handled this more responsibly by communicating not only the probability of a terrorist attack at Sochi, but by reporting the true extent of terrorism throughout Russia.

Historically, Russia has suffered greatly from terrorism. In the 20-year period between 1992 and 2012, the country ranked seventh in the world for total terrorist attacks and related deaths, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. However, this statistic does not reveal the whole story of terrorism in Russia or the threat posed in Sochi specifically.

The group also reports that Russia was not among the top 10 countries for total attacks in 2012. Moreover, the frequency of attacks decreased during the first half of 2013, and fewer than 50 percent of these resulted in one or more fatalities. (Data is not yet available for all of 2013.) Since 1992, more than 70 percent of attacks have occurred in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia, and only eight attacks — fewer than 0.5 percent — have taken place in Krasnodar Krai, where Sochi is located. Moreover, while it is estimated that Chechen groups carried out 17 percent of the attacks between 1992 and 2012, the remaining attacks were carried out by other active groups in Russia. According to the Russian government, half of terrorist incidents in 2012 targeted local law enforcement and security forces, not civilians.

Thus, while a terrorist attack is always a possibility in Russia — as well as in the 80 other countries where terrorism is present — an attack against civilians in Sochi was always highly unlikely.

Moreover, congressional leaders could have pointed out that Chechen militant groups are losers. All three respected data sets that evaluate the successes of terrorist organizations found that Chechen groups largely failed to achieve their political or territorial objectives. What Vilayat Dagestan achieved by releasing a video was instant credibility, and the sort of free promotional airtime that is invaluable.

In 1975, terrorism scholar Brian Jenkins observed, "Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead." The media obviously needs people watching or reading, no matter what the issue. Inflating the probability and severity of terrorism is unfortunately a reliable way to achieve this. Thankfully, there were no terrorism incidents during the Winter Olympics. But with the World Cup kicking off in 107 days in Brazil, the media has plenty of time to yet again worry about the worst outcomes and emphasize the (implausible) potential threats to increase viewership.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.