North Caucuses Region Is Source For Many Terrorism Problems

The run-up to the Sochi Olympics has been plagued by security concerns that will no doubt persist until the last visitors have left this winter’s sports venue.

From his vantage point in Tbilisi, Georgia, just a few hundred miles from Sochi, Potomac Institute Senior Fellow and Cyber Center Director David J. Smith is watching the situation carefully.

“The press is abuzz with tales of a Black Widow suicide bomber who may already be in Sochi,” Amb. Smith said. Black Widow is a term applied to widows of terrorists seeking to avenge their late husbands’ deaths. “Of course, there could be a suicide bomber or some other kind of terrorist inside Sochi. Terrorist groups have known the Olympics would be held there since 2007,” Amb. Smith continued. “Moreover, do not imagine that the Russian security services ‘Ring of Steel’ around the Sochi region is not made of cheesecloth in some places. They’re throwing 50,000—one even hears numbers up to 100,000—troops and police at the problem, but most of them have no real counter-terrorist training.

“Meanwhile, a dilapidated old Lada bumps along a country road, friends meet, vodka and cigarettes are exchanged, and the old car continues on its way. Even their elite services, remember, are the guys who brought you fiascos like the Nordost Theater in 2002, where the elite Alpha Group killed 133 hostages by pumping some kind of chemical into the ventilation system. Or how about the Beslan School in 2004? Russian security forces stormed the building with tanks and incendiary devices—334 hostages, including 186, kids died. The Russians have installed high tech surveillance devices and state-of-the-art command centers, and they are no doubt getting a lot of foreign help. Still, it will come down to command, control and execution by the guys on the ground. Let’s hope for the best.”

Meanwhile, Amb. Smith said, terrorists could simply avoid Sochi and commit mayhem elsewhere. “Cities in southern Russia as far away as, as we have seen, Volgograd could become enticing targets. And Moscow will always be a favorite, both because it is the capital and because so many Sochi-bound visitors will transit there.”

The biggest problems are associated with terrorism that emanates from the nearby North Caucasus region, Amb. Smith said. Westerners have a hard time understanding what is going on there for two reasons. “First,” Amb. Smith continued, “Westerners mirror-image from their own countries where the clean-cut forces of law and order battle filthy terrorists. And Moscow loves to perpetuate that narrative. Don’t buy it. In a country ruled by corruption and a region traumatized for two centuries, it is hard to find good guys. What matters are clans, families, culture and religion, criminal groups and money—not the uniform one wears. The security forces are part of the whole rough-and-tumble situation. When you read that they killed a half dozen terrorists, you don’t know who killed whom or why.”

The second reason that Amb. Smith offers for Western misperceptions is a lack of understanding of the culture and history of the region. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “The terrorists are real terrorists and they kill innocent people. The people who died in the Volgograd railway station, including some children, did nothing to harm a single soul in the North Caucasus. And—make no mistake—since the First Chechen War of the mid-nineties, local jihadis have been reaching out to jihadis worldwide. But underlying it all, there is a narrative seldom heard in the West. The Russians have been terrorizing the native people of the North Caucasus—Circassians, Chechens and others—for 200 years. Just look at the atrocities in the two Chechen Wars of the nineties."

The average person in the North Caucasus is not a terrorist, Amb. Smith believes. “They are ordinary people caught in an extraordinary mess,” he said. “Still, there are powerful emotions from living memory and rooted deep in history. In the Nineteenth Century, the Russians killed more than a million Circassians and deported as many more to the Ottoman Empire. Many died of disease and starvation.   And the Sochi Olympics are more than a high visibility event. 2014 is the sesquicentennial of the final Russian defeat of the Circassian people at the battle of Kbaada, modern-day Krasnaya Polyana, the site of Olympic skiing events. The sight of Putin schlussing down the slopes where so many people died is powerful stuff. And the terrorists play on it."

In a recorded message posted on, Doku Umarov, self-styled Emir of the Caucasian Emirate, said, "They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims, buried on the territory of our land on the Black Sea, and we as mujahideen are obliged to not permit that, using any methods allowed us by the almighty Allah."

Amb. Smith said, “Umarov is a real terrorist and he has threatened the Sochi Olympics. We Americans must protect our people, and that means working with the Russian security services. However, I offer two bits of advice. One, recognize Russian limitations—don’t buy the hype about how good and prepared they are. And, two, don’t buy into their narrative. The north Caucasus is a very complicated place and we need to keep Moscow at arm’s length on this matter. They are not allies in our war on terror—not at all."


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