Just a few short weeks away, the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympic may go off with a bang, literally, judging by the amount of "terrorist" chatter surrounding the games. Today however, it is more than just chatter: earlier the Russian media reported that Russian security forces had come across multiple unexplained deaths and explosive devices in a region near Sochi, resulting in an aggressive "anti-terrorism sweep."
The developments are bizarre to say the least:
A car with a body inside exploded as police approached it in Russia's Stavropol Territory, reported Russia's state-owned RIA Novosti, citing the Interior Ministry. In the same area, Russian authorities reportedly discovered a car containing the bodies of three men along with explosive material. The day before, two more bodies were found in the same region.
Russian officials are investigating the possible cause and motive for the deaths -- a Russia analyst speculated to ABC News the deaths could be related to organized crime -- but at any rate the mystery and the security sweep add to an already tense situation in southern Russia as the Olympics approach.
One person keeping a close eye on the developments is none other than president Obama, who as we reported yesterday, will unleash an ad blitz for Obamacare around the Olympics. The last thing he will want is for the participants in the games to have need of it. Which is why one can be certain that the NSA and various US security forces are already well aware of any potential sources of terrorism around the games. Sure enough, in a statement of condolences from the White House over the most recent Volgograd bombings, President Obama's National Security Council slipped in an apparent jab at the Russian government over the security situation. "The U.S. government has offered our full support to the Russian government in security preparations for the Sochi Olympic Games, and we would welcome the opportunity for closer cooperation for the safety of the athletes, spectators, and other participants," the NSC statement said."
Some thoughts on who they may be:
Just 10 days ago more than 30 people were killed in dual suicide bombings in Volgograd, Russia, some 400 miles northeast of Sochi. By comparison, Moscow lies more than 850 miles north of Sochi. In October seven people were killed when a suicide bomber detonated explosives on a bus, also in Volgograd. The Stavropol Territory lies approximately halfway between Volgograd and Sochi – approximately 150 miles away from the Olympic site.
No group has publicly claimed responsibility for the bombings, but in the case of the October bus bombing, Russian authorities said the bomber hailed from Dagestan, a restive region in southern Russia to Sochi's east that, along with Chechnya, is home to a violent Islamist insurgency that has fought Russian government forces for decades.
The leader of the insurgency, Doku Umarov, sometimes referred to as "Russia's Osama bin Laden," last June called on his followers to "do their utmost to derail" the Sochi Olympics, which he called a "satanic dance on the bones of our ancestors." In the past Umarov has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks on Russian civilians, including the 2011 bombing of Moscow's Domodedovo airport.
What is far more clear is who is providing the funding and supplies for the Islamists - the same puppetmaster who was behind the Syrian conflict. Recall:
Bandar told Putin, “There are many common values and goals that bring us together, most notably the fight against terrorism and extremism all over the world. Russia, the US, the EU and the Saudis agree on promoting and consolidating international peace and security. The terrorist threat is growing in light of the phenomena spawned by the Arab Spring. We have lost some regimes. And what we got in return were terrorist experiences, as evidenced by the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the extremist groups in Libya. ... As an example, I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi on the Black Sea next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us, and they will not move in the Syrian territory’s direction without coordinating with us. These groups do not scare us. We use them in the face of the Syrian regime but they will have no role or influence in Syria’s political future.”
Putin laughed in Bandar's face, the Saudi natgas pipeline gambit in Syria failed, and as a result the escalation in Sochi is progressing just as Bandar implied it would. Naturally this puts Obama in a tough spot: he can't openly act against Saudi interests once again after alieanting his ally in the region and take out the terrorist camps in Chechnya, but the last thing he would want is to cart home coffins of athletes.
Which means US participants are resorting to Plan B:
the U.S. ski and snowboard team this year will be overseen by a private security firm, which plans to have as many as five aircraft on standby in case of a medical or security emergency in Sochi. "This environment is unique,'' Global Rescue CEO Dan Richards told USA Today Wednesday. "You just don't have competitions in places like Sochi with any frequency. … In the last 10 years, there has been nothing like it.''
William Rathburn, who was the head of Olympic Security during the bombing of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, told ABC News that while he's confident Russian officials "have done everything they can" to secure the upcoming games, the odds of an incident are "very high."
"It's an opportunity for the Chechen [militants] or anyone else to embarrass Russia or [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, I think," he said. "It's far easier to protect against attacks on somebody who might be targeted, a group or country or delegation. [But] it's clear that the people who conducted the two bombings in Volgograd are willing to indiscriminately kill people. It's very difficult to protect against…"
And after last year in which Putin humiliated US and most western foreign policy on virtually every front, the number of people who want to embarass Putin is quite long.