Unsurprisingly, the Russian government has promised tight security for the Games, and with President Vladimir Putin touting the Olympics as "a personal project," more than $50 billion is being invested to show the world what Russia can do as it hosts 2,500 athletes from dozens of countries.
Against this background and the expected deployment of ample military and quasi-military forces to secure the Games themselves, the greater vulnerability would seem to lie on the Olympic periphery, in the form of softer targets: the hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs where tourists will go — especially given the relatively isolated location of the Games. This is what happened in Uganda in 2010 when al Qaeda's affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabab, attacked two World Cup viewing parties in Kampala, killing 74 sports fans including one American.
Another way terrorists could duck the strong security presence is through acts of sabotage undertaken prior to the Games but timed to take effect when they are underway. For example, during construction of the various venues, it may be possible to implant an improvised explosive device with a timer attached. This possibility is not as far-fetched as it sounds. It has actually happened before: In 2004, a bomb implanted in the Dinamo football stadium within a concrete pillar, inserted by Chechen insurgents during prior repairs, killed the first President of the Chechen Republic, Akhmad Kadyrov, as well as more than a dozen others. Kadyrov's son, Ramzan Kadyrov, is now President of the Chechen Republic, and is known to take a hard line against militants within his borders.
In our view, this type of insider threat is possible but not probable. However, many measures are being taken by Russian authorities in order to secure the Games, such as neighborhood sweeps and roundups. If executed in a too heavy-handed way, however, damage may be done to the battle for hearts and minds in the region.
Layered atop this bloody history and of even greater concern today is the foreign fighter phenomenon which could further bolster Umarov's wherewithal to act. Foreign fighters have long been drawn to fight alongside Chechen "mujahideen brothers" in North Caucasus, and now Chechens motivated by a sense of religious duty have added Syria to their list of jihadi destinations beyond Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and the Sahel and Maghreb regions of Africa.
Russian officials believe there could be as many as 1,500 Russian Islamist militants — including 400 to 500 Chechens, 600 Dagestanis, and 200 Tatars and Bashkirs — fighting in Syria on the side of the opposition to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. They join up to an estimated 11,000 foreign fighters from 74 nations around the world. These fighters have weapons, the latest training and a desire to use it, and are battle-hardened in urban warfare should they turn their attention to Russian pride over hosting the Winter Olympic Games.
Consider the foregoing against what the Russian State and President Putin himself have at stake with the Games: national and personal credibility and prestige, and the economic future of Southern Russia. The stage is further set if we keep in mind that Putin has stood shoulder to shoulder with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad throughout the conflict in Syria, thus aligning Russia against the rebel forces in Syria, which include jihadists (foreign fighters) from across the globe.