THE BLOG

Sochi: The Reality of Terrorist Threats

01/29/2014 12:34 EST | Updated 03/31/2014 05:59 EDT

Sochi is just under an eight-hour drive from the borders of some of the most antagonistic areas in the world.

The question persists. Is there a clear and present danger to athletes, journalists, televison personnel and tourists going to Sochi for the Olympic games?

What are the facts and what is propoganda?

In the early 1990s with the breakup of the Soviet Union, issues arose when the "new Russia," which had just repelled attacks by proponents of restoring the old Communist guard, faced a separatist challenge from Chechnya and numerous ethnic political and religious problems in the southern part of its territory.

With Putin in charge, the Russian military smashed the rebellion in Chechnya and later Georgia, killing thousands of men, women and children. That fact smoulders in the hearts of every single person in the North Caucasus.

Political scientist Sergei Markedonov wrote recently:

"The region is more than simply a gateway to warm seas, a land rich in mineral resources (a fact political commenters frequently overstate when oil is concerned), and a territory with a great potential for tourism. It is, above all, a territory made up of ethnic political and religious interactions that, under certain circumstances, might play a role in the strengthening of Russia and its global positions. Yet it may also evolve into a dangerous frontier that will continue to pose a challenge even if Russia decides it is too expensive and disadvantageous to continue supporting the region financially."

A disturbing conclusion can be drawn from sociological research conducted in the past several years: the attitude of Russians towards the North Caucasus ranges from antagonistic to utter contempt.

My good friend Alex Schnerer, who has been helping me translate the thousands of pages of research we have been going through in researching my writings, said point blank. "Russians have as much in common with Chechnya, Ingushetia, or Dagestan as Indonesia does with Poland."

So what is at the heart of the terrorist threats and how real are they?

Dokku Umarov, the leader of the islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus has promised to strike Sochi.

We know that the Olympics presents a tempting opportunity for many young and ambitious militants to make their name.

Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist who himself has been the target of investigations in the heavily censored Russia of today, made some stark observations that causes one to think about just how secure the Games really are.

"The way in which the Russian secret services are responding to the threat looks questionable at very least. When the FSB (Federal Security Service) was tasked in 2010 with providing security for the Olympics, the agency named its main spy hunter, not the head of the counterterrorism department, as chairman of the operations staff.

The FSB has also put much effort into installing cutting-edge surveillance technologies in the Sochi area -- but many of them are not intended to detect terrorists. The latest initiative, announced last November, involves the gathering of metadata on all participants of the Games, including sportsmen, judges and journalists, which will be be stored for three years. The agency is also keen to use drones, which are useless in detecting a suicide bomber, but could help in disrupting protests.

It seems the Russian secret services do not understand that maintaining control over everyone and everything (essentially the idea inherited from the Soviet past) and preventing a terrorist attack are far from being the same thing."

The Big Russian Bear has always counted on its sheer force of will and the patriotism of its citizens to counter any threat to the Motherland.

Sharp antagonistic reactions most typically occur after huge terrorist attacks, such as the 24 January 2011 suicide bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport which claimed 37 lives and was the biggest terrorist attack against any international airport.

And the Beslan school massacre of 1 September 2004 where 385 people were killed, half of them children, after Russian troops rushed the school and fought it out with Chechen and Ignush insurgents.

But how good is Russia at prevention rather than reaction?

One always has to question motives and who benefits from the spread of misinformation especially as it regards Russia. A lot of people would love to see Putin made the fool. And for his Games to fail in spectacular fashion. To put fear into people so they won't travel to Sochi.

But no Olympic Games have been held in such an unstable region as this before. Vigilance is key.

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