Warning Signs

Boston bombing highlights dangers to 2014 Winter Olympics, experts say

Bolshoi ice dome under construction in the Olympic park in Sochi, Russia / AP
• April 19, 2013 1:45 pm


The events unfolding in Boston underscore the threat Chechen radicals with ties to al Qaeda pose to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, experts said.

Boston police revealed early Friday that Chechen brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been identified as the prime suspects in the marathon bombing that killed three people and wounded nearly 200 others.

Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police, while Dzhokhar is being sought in a citywide manhunt that has shut down the city of Boston.

Experts worry that similar operations could be carried out at next year’s Olympics in Sochi, a Black Sea coastal town that borders the conflict-plagued North Caucasus region where al Qaeda has been gaining a foothold.

"The attack on the Boston Marathon may be a ringer for Sochi Olympics, which are next door to strife-ridden North Caucasus," Ariel Cohen, a Russia expert at the Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Free Beacon. "It is a combination of luck and good security work that no such events were attacked so far. However, now all bets are off."

While the longstanding ethnic conflict rarely registers in the American media, the Boston bombings could be a sign that al Qaeda is trying to expand hostilities outside of the region.

There is an increasing "internationalization of these local conflicts because the participants are being radicalized to become part of a militant, fundamentalist" movement that can launch attacks across the globe, said Leon Aron, the American Enterprise Institute’s top Russia analyst.

"It can happen anywhere," Aron said.

Chechen rebel groups are reportedly preparing to commit terrorist acts during the Olympic games.

American and Israeli participants in particular could be prime targets for these terrorists.

"Many national teams, certainly including Israel or the U.S. are going to insist on some preventative security measures," Aron said.

"Given the Boston [bombings] and the proximity to the North Caucasus, … clearly one of the impacts on the Olympics will be the apprehension everyone has" that another attack could occur, Aron said. "The security concerns will be heightened."

Chechnya, a very poor Muslim majority region of Russia, is a hotbed of Muslim extremism.

Chechnya has been engaged in a decades-old conflict with Russia over its independence. A full-scale war first broke out in 1994 when Russia attempted to seize the territory. Islamic fighters in Chechnya fought a second war in 1999 for similar reasons.

Russia experts warned lawmakers on Capitol Hill in late February that al Qaeda is successfully recruiting Chechens to carry out terrorist operations across the globe.

"Over the last two decades al Qaeda and its funders and affiliates have committed considerable resources to foster terrorism and instability from the Black Sea to the Fergana Valley and the Pamir Mountains," Cohen said in a testimony before Congress.

"They do so as they sense a strategic opportunity to reach out and radicalize Muslims who in many cases have little to no access to moderate but credible Islam," Cohen said.

"Islamist terrorists from the self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate have already attacked the energy infrastructure, trains, planes, theaters, and hospitals," Cohen said.

"They are increasingly spreading beyond the region and are involved in terrorist activities in Western Europe and Central Asia, including Afghanistan. The North Caucasus Islamist insurgency is part of the global radical Islamist movement, which is deeply and implacably inimical to the West and the United States."

Russia will have to take definitive action to stymie terrorists plotting to attack the Sochi Olympics in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, said Anna Borshchevskaya, assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Patriciu Eurasia Center.

Sochi "is an odd choice" for the Olympics given its history of political strife, Borshchevskaya said.

"It’s a historic homeland to Circassians forcefully driven out of their land by the Russian czar in the 1800s," she said. "Sochi is right next to Abkhazia—a cause of tensions between Russia and Georgia and of course Sochi is also close to Chechnya. Putting the Olympics there seems to be asking for trouble."

Tensions in the region have percolated over the past months as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to "crackdown on civil society" and "commit human rights violations," Borshchevskaya said.

"The Obama administration has been largely silent in response to Putin’s repressions," she said. "The Boston marathon bombings may be a tragic reminder that being silent on abuses abroad eventually reverberates at home."