American journalists in Sochi for the Winter Olympics are all atwitter about amenities, which is understandable when your tap water looks like this and there's a shortage of things like pillows, light bulbs, and door handles. But making sure visitors are comfortable is obviously less important than keeping them safe. It's worth remembering that before Sochi's Hotelpocalypse began unfolding, the biggest concerns surrounding the 2014 Olympics were all security-related, and they still are.
So just who and what are the threats facing Sochi?
Hackers: In its travel advisory for Sochi (which we'll talk more about in a second) the State Department warned visitors that they'd have absolutely no privacy. That means no Internet privacy. Using dummy accounts, NBC's Richard Engel logged on to wi-fi in Sochi from a laptop and a cell phone, and was hacked immediately on both devices. Other journalists have reported similar experiences. While there is Internet security for the event itself—In 2012, the organizing committee selected Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab to protect all "workstations, mobile devices, files, email servers and the shared servers and Internet gateways used by the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee's infrastructure against all types of malware"—it appears that protection isn't (and possibly can't be) extended to visitors.
Terrorists: If hackers are the nuisance threat, the Caucasus Emirate is the actual dangerous one. The group is made up of Chechen rebels, and has been declared a terrorist organization by the U.S., Russia, and the United Nations Security Council. The State Department's travel advisory for Sochi explicitly names the group as a potential disruptor of the games, largely because Doku Umarov, the group's leader and a veteran Chechen separatist, promised last July to use "maximum force" to disrupt the Winter Games.
More Terrorists: While a train station and a trolley bombing in Volgograd in late December were originally through to be the work of the Caucasus Emirate, a different group of radical Islamists took responsibility in January. According to the State Department, that group has promised “a present for tourists” in Sochi. The most repeated theory is that a possible attack will come in the form of one or more "black widows"—female suicide bombers of Chechen origin whose husbands have been killed in battle.
The Russian Government: In November 2013, Russia's Federal Security Service posted signs around Sochi warning residents and police to be on the lookout for a terrorist group made up of "23 to 35 year old Caucasian or Slavic-looking men or women" who might be posing as "journalists, construction workers, or members of political and civil society organizations." Turns out that description perfectly matched those of members of the North Caucasus Environmental Watch, an activist group that's been critical (but not violent) toward the Winter Games. The warning was used as license to detain and interrogate the group's leader.
On the flip side, there are layers upon layers of forces in place to protect Sochi:
The Russian Government: There are more than three times as many Russian police and military in Sochi for the games than there were in Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics—at least 40,000, compared to 13,000 in Utah. And in a move that's been met with mixed reactions, many of Russia's police and military will be dressed similarly to volunteers and organizers at the games, rather than in traditional military garb.
At least one visitor, the Boston Globe's David Filipov, says the non-threatening air of the uniforms extends all the way to the security that greets visitors when they arrive in Sochi. No one hassled him or checked his bags. He was even able to board a train without a ticket.
Private Security: USA Today reports that private security firms are also operating in Sochi, and at least one company is using GPS monitoring to track its clients, a list that includes prominent athletes, their families, and guests. The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association has hired the private security firm Global Rescue to keep its athletes safe. “This will be one of our larger deployments [for USSA] given the scale and the location,” Global Rescue's CEO told FOX News.
Foreign Governments: Politico reported this morning that the USS Mount Whitney and the USS Taylor are being deployed to the Black Sea to conduct “routine security operations and patrols,” and help with an evacuation for Americans in the event of a major attack. Sixty-five foreign heads of state are expected to attend—including Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, and British Prime Minister David Cameron—and each of those contingents will travel with heavy security as well. France's Interpol will also be at the games, but it'll be hunting dopers and match-fixers, not terrorists.
The Boston Globe's Filipov also reports that door-to-door visits have been being conducted for months in Sochi neighborhoods. “They asked for information on who lives there, which cars they drive, what kind of property they own, which relatives they have,” a human rights lawyer told Filipov. “There’s no law that allows going house-to-house asking questions like that.”
That suggests Russian authorities have two security plans in place: A heavy-handed one for those who fit the description of potential terrorists, and a friendlier one for Westerners. Experts are nevertheless worried that a huge concentration of troops won't be enough to stop an attack.
"This is the only Games in history where there's been an announced credible threat well before the Games," Bill Rathburn, who oversaw security for the Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996, told USA Today. "Since that threat was made last July, there's been at least three terrorist incidents that have demonstrated their capability of carrying out that threat. So I think it's very, very real."
Top image: A Russian security officer guards a stage at Sochi. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth