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Olympic target

The North Caucasus has developed a reputation for being a hodgepodge of instability and extremism. But is the threat of terrorism from the region being drummed up by a media all too eager to see the Sochi Games fail? What drives the regional insurgency and terror groups - is it Russia's behavior, Jihadist ideology or foreign funding? Oksana asks counterterrorism expert Gordon Hahn to shed some light on the matter.


Oksana Boyko @OksanaBoyko_RT
Worlds Apart @WorldsApart_RT

Oksana Boyko:The Olympics are supposed to bring people together but the Sochi games provided for some very odd bedfellows. Western media and terrorists in the North Caucasus both claim the competition shouldn’t have been held in Russia and both would probably like to see it turned into a major embarrassment. Is it a case of the enemy of my enemy being my friend? Well, to discuss that, I’m now joined by Gordon Hahn, a counterterrorism expert from the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation. Mr Hahn, thank you very much for taking time to talk to us here.

Gordon Hahn: Thank you.

OB:Now, Russia is, of course, no stranger to terrorist attacks and there’s always a possibility of something like that happening like, for example, in Munich in 1972, or in Atlanta in 1976, but whenever an attack happens on a friendly territory, the narrative that we get from Western media is that of resilience, you know – ‘we regret the loss of life but we should never allow terrorists dictate our lives’, but when it comes to the Sochi games, for some reason the line we most often hear, here in Russia, from Western media is: ‘why was Russia ever allowed to host those games?’, and I wonder if this reflects the nature of the threat posed by terrorism or rather the nature of the coverage?

GH: Well, I think it’s a combination of both. On the one hand, one could argue that holding the games so close to a region where a considerably strong terrorist group has its base was high risk. It probably seemed like less of a high risk back in 2005/2006 when they were deciding whether to hold it in Sochi, because at that time the number of attacks was down quite a bit, but the movement was about to regenerate, as it did in 2007, when they declared the Caucasus Emirate and became a more Jihadist organisation. On the other hand, there is a certain tendency in the West to, on the one hand, ignore this issue to a large extent, certainly when it comes to looking at the terrorists themselves, and instead focus on Russian failure to guarantee security and so forth, and that’s in part due to a certain bias in the Western media.

OB:If I will take you a couple of years back to, I think it was in 2007, when the announcement of London as a host city for the 2012 Summer Olympic games came less than 24 hours prior to that major attack on the city’s transportation system in which, you know, dozens of people were killed, hundreds of them were injured, but I don’t remember a single expert, either from Russia or from the West, questioning the wisdom of holding those games in London. In fact, it was presented as a way for the city to recover and defy those terrorists, and yet when it comes to Sochi, the Olympic committee, the International Olympic Committee, is being constantly berated for allowing these games to proceed, so it really looks like, you know, a case of double standards to many Russians.

GH: There are cases of double standards, I’m not sure this is one of them, quite honestly. Again, the difference between, you know, say London and the North Caucasus is that in London, you know, terrorist attacks are relatively rare. So, even though the timing there was close in terms of the decision, you know, in the North Caucasus you know you’ve had thousands of insurgent and terrorist attacks since 2007 and you‘ve had 54 suicide bombings in Russia since the formation of the Caucasus Emirate in 2007.

OB:But on the other hand, we’re talking about the city of Sochi, which is not exactly in the middle of Chechnya or Dagestan, it’s still quite removed and I think that you would agree with me that the Russian state is taking this terror threat extremely seriously. I mean, thousands of security forces have been deployed on the site and it’s estimated that more than two billion U.S. dollars were spent on providing the security and safety of those games.

GH: Right, yeah, I agree, generally speaking that the Russians have taken extraordinary measuresandSochi, of course, is not in the heart of the North Caucasus; however, it’s only several hundred miles awayand the Jihadists have shown the capacity to strike Moscow and more recently striking Volgograd and, of course, attacking the Moscow-Petersburg train back in November 2009. So, I think it’s much easier for the Caucasus Emirate to hit Sochi, in theory, if all these security measures hadn’t been taken, then it is for global Jihadists or even native Jihadists in England, which are very few, to attack London. So, it’s a bit more of a security risk but again, as I said, you know, at the time, it didn’t look – at the time the decision was being made, it looked as though, perhaps, the Chechen separatism movement was on the decline, it would disappear.

OB:Now, you already mentioned the Caucasus Emirate and obviously, its leaders already warned that they are going to take any opportunity to strike the games and if we look at the coverage of the Caucasus Emirate in the Western media, what strikes me is that many journalists still use words like ‘rebels’, ‘insurgents’, ‘militants’, rather than the word ‘terrorist’ and this is something that has made Russia upset for a very long time but I would argue that this is not just a case of hurt feelings because in the run up to the Sochi games, we had a lot of coverage focusing on the terrorists in the North Caucasusand I also think that some of the journalists have the specific tendency of seeking out negative stories about Russia and what could be more negative than a possibility of a major terror attack? But in doing, and in covering those threats so extensively, one can make a case that it not only adds legitimacy to the cause of the terrorists but it also helps their ideology to spread. Would you agree with that?

GH: Yes, there’s a big problem with the language used in the mass media when it comes to covering the Caucasus Emirate, in particular. Also, you run across this sort of political correctness in discussing Jihadism. In general, I prefer rather than the term ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorists’, the term ‘Jihadist’ and ‘Jihadism’ and this is because this is exactly what they call themselves. This is how they describe themselves. Terrorism is really a tactic and it’s a very one-sided form of coverage. There’s never been a detailed examination of the Caucasus Emirate in one of the major media outlets in the United States.

OB:Yeah, I totally agree with you and I think while, certainly, many Russian authorities and officials acknowledge that human rights have been violated in some instances in the North Caucasus, I would challenge anyone to find a war zone where no one’s human rights were violated. I think that would be a very hard challenge. Now, I would like to shift gears a little bit and ask you about the nature of the terror threat itself rather than how it’s being covered in Western or Russian media. Obviously, you can never eliminate it completely but as we mentioned before, the Russian authorities are putting a lot of resources in trying to keep things under control. In that context, what do you think are the most likely forms of attack that terrorists could try to undermine the Sochi games.

GH: Yeah, I think that they will actually, given the security measures taken in and around Sochi, I think they will probably try not to attack Sochi but rather attack outside Sochi, perhaps in Moscow, perhaps in Volgograd, perhaps in Rostov-on-Don and my guess is, there are basically four possible types of attack – one would be suicide bombings, perhaps using ethnic Russian suicide bombers, which the Dagestanis have specialised in recently; however, the Russian security forces and Dagestani security forces recently killed one of the leading ethnic Russian Jihadists in Dagestan so that might have taken that weapon away somewhat. The other is, sort of, vehicle-borne attacks without the use of a suicide bomber and also there was a recent threat to use chemical weapons made by the group that carried out the suicide bombings in Volgograd.

OB:You just raised the spectre of the terrorists using chemical weapons, possibly those smuggled from the rebels in Syria but in order to suggest such a scenario, you have to first contemplate the possibility of the Syrian rebels actually having access to chemical weapons, which is something that the U.S. Government and some other Western governments flatly rule out. How do you reconcile the two?

GH: Well, the fact of the matter is, there have been some, there was a journalistic report by a well-known American investigative journalist , in which he interviewed several people from the CIA who claimed that they reported to the Obama administration, last Spring, that the rebels could possibly have acquired some chemical agents. So, it is conceivable, I don’t think we know everything that’s going on, on the ground in Syria and given the fog of war, it’s certainly possible that these groups would have gotten ahold of chemical agents. Also, there’ve been several reports of the Turkish authorities detaining people coming from Syria into Turkey with, one case, one group having sarin. So, it’s possible. I don’t know if they could get the materials into Russia easily but it’s possible and it’s something that, since they’ve made the threat, it seems to me it’s incumbent on the authorities to, at least, be on the alert for that and to be trying to examine whether it’s possible.

OB:Now, one thing that I think adds strength to your chemical weapons assertion is the fact that over the past few years, terrorists from the North Caucasus have actually risen to prominence in Syria and I believe that one of them is even in charge of the northern wing of ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which is believed to be one of the most brutal groups operating now in Syria. So, supposedly if Syrian rebels had some sort of access to chemical weapons, it wouldn’t be such a big deal, such a big problem for ethnic Dagestanis or ethnic Chechen terrorists to also lay their hands on those chemical weapons, right?

GH: Absolutely, I’ve been writing a little bit about that lately. There are actually two groups that are dominated by Caucasus mujahideen. Some of them are fighters of the Caucasus Emirate, others are people form the North Caucasus who would like to join the Caucasus Emirate but because they lack resources and weapons for everyone who’d like to join, these people have decided to go to Syria and there are essentially two groups - there’s the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that you mentioned and Jabhat al-Nusra and both of them have units of foreign mujahideen and in both cases, the units of foreign mujahideen are led by ethnic Chechens, actually from Georgia, from the Pankisi valley in Georgia – so called ethnic Chechen Kists. But there are many Dagestanis from Russia and from the North Caucasus, many Chechens and even some Kabardins and Balkars and we’re talking about hundreds, we don’t know exactly how many, probably, at least, 400 – 500.

OB:I would like to pick up on what you just said. The instability in the North Caucasus has long had, at least, one external player and you just mentioned it – Georgia. Vladimir Putin has alleged several times that Georgia under Mikhail Saakashvili provided sanctuary to some of the armed groups operating in the North Caucasus, possibly logistical and even material support. Now, since then, Georgia has had a change of leadership, the Georgian team is taking part in the Olympics, but I wonder if Georgia still plays a part in this regional security puzzle because, after all, Georgia shares a border with Turkey and Turkey, as we all know, has been somewhat permissive when it comes to foreign fighters crossing its borders.

GH: Yes, there’s a large diaspora in Turkey of Chechens from the North Caucasus and also Circassians were also less active in the global Jihad so there’s no doubt that that’s an issue. The Georgians themselves have been playing up on the Circassian issue and, by the way, there are quite a few opposition figures in Georgia who have accused the Saakashvili administration of supporting the Caucasus Emirate and mujahideen. So, the remnants of that possible cooperation could, in fact, contribute to something in Sochi, though it’s not clear yet whether, you know, we’re not sure, we don’t have concrete evidence that the Georgians were involved in supporting the Caucasus Emirate yet, but it’s possible.

OB:Mr Hahn, we have to take a short break now but when we come back – the Sochi games have already been labelled the most dangerous Olympics in the history of the modern games but does this claim really hold water? That’s coming up in a few moments on Worlds Apart.

OB:Welcome back to Worlds Apart where we are discussing the security of the Sochi games with Gordon Hahn, a counterterrorism expert at the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation. Mr Hahn, for almost two decades, Russia has claimed that the insurgency in the North Caucasus was part of a global terror network but for many years those claims were essentially brushed off. I wonder, to what extent do you think that the security challenges that we already discussed in the first part of the program are really of Russia’s own making and to what extent is it a product of the globalisation of terror?

GH: Well, it’s really a mixture of two. On the one hand, it’s driven from inside Russia by, you know, the so called, the deficit democracy, the high levels of corruption, by the way, the local culture in the North Caucasus which tends to produce a lot of violence-oriented young men and then, of course, the tendency within any Muslim population for a small percentage of people to be attracted to the Jihadist ideology and that then is the bridge to the global Jihad. And so, through the Internet and earlier, in the 1990’s, through direct intervention by Al-Qaeda and Hatab and others and the establishment of training camps, it’s influenced by the global Jihad, primarily now it’s through the Internet and external financing from the Gulf region and so forth, so it’s a combination of the global situation and the domestic situation.

OB:Now, as far as I understand, the terrorists don’t really need much to achieve their goal, all they need is to create this feeling, this perception of insecurity, and that could be done through a relatively small-scale plot and if they indeed succeed in pulling something off, something like a terror attack, even on a small scale, in Sochi or in some other Russian city, what reaction do you think that could produce in the West? I mean, will those Western pundits who are now calling for the boycott of the Sochi Olympics sympathise with the Russians or is it likely to produce some secret gloating that Russia was embarrassed in such a major way?

GH: There’s no doubt about it that people who are putting out all these reports that were clearly exaggerated to some extent, the problems existed but they were exaggerated, about the dirty water, and the bad hotels and so forth and so on, these people will jump on an attack to criticise the Putin administration and Russia’s failure to be able to secure the games. There’s no doubt about that, that will happen. But, in general, I don’t think, unless it’s a serious, serious, attack – like a major chemical attack, which is highly unlikely, and it would have to occur inside Sochi, I don’t think the United States, the Obama administration or even other Western governments would decide to pull their teams from the Olympics. It would have to be a really major attack inside Sochi, I think, to pull that off and I don’t think they’re going to be able to do that.

OB:Now, you just mentioned Putin’s name and one thing that many western commentators and terrorists in the North Caucasus have in common when it comes to the Sochi Games is, of course, a very high degree of personification and politicisation of those games and the main recent issue in which Russia has proven to be the thorn in the side of both the West and the Jihadist movement, is Syria. To what extent do you think the debate around Sochi is affected by the differences of opinion on the Syrian issue?

GH: On the Syrian issue, there are, clearly, great differences between the United States and Russia. I don’t think Sochi is going to play a large role in that. A lot depends on how, if indeed there turns out to be a chemical attack, and it would turn out that the agents came from Syria, then we would probably, that would have an influence, but I don’t think that there’s all that much direct relation. I think the bigger question is the problem that Russia faces in having this large pro-Jihadi, to a large extent or to a significant extent, civil war going on so close to the North Caucasus with fighters going back and forth and the great security concern this creates for Russia in the short-term, mid-term and the long term. So, it really would be, and I think this is one of the main drivers for Putin’s intervention in trying to get the chemical weapons out of Syria. I think the Obama administration and the West should be a little more conscious of that and there seems to be a change in heart in the administration now in Washington about trying to work with the Russians to deal with the Jihadists. So, there are essentially two problems as far as the administration of the United States sees it probably, in Syria, and that is firstly the Assad government , or regime, and the Jihadists. At least on one of those, I think, we can work together and maybe in the long-term we can find some solution to end the civil war and perhaps find a place, some place else, for Assad to live but maintain security and stability in Syria but that’s going to be very, very difficult.

OB:Now, I heard seevral security analysts suggest that the conflict in Syria represents a pivotal moment for the global Jihadist movement both in terms of defining their ideology and in growing their numbers, do you agree with that?

GH: I think it’s very important, it’s now become really the central front in the global Jihad and in terms of the North Caucasus, I think it really risks promoting the weight of the North Caucasus mujahideen, the Caucasus Emirate mujahideen, within the global Jihadi movement in general, and that’s a major problem for Russia. The Caucasus Emirate mujahideen is now having very close contacts with two Al-Qaeda affiliated groups - the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, so this is a potentially major problem for security for the North Caucasus and Russia in general.

OB:Now, up until recently the United States was considered to be the number one enemy for global Jihadists but given that, at least when it comes to Syria, Russia has been the strongest impediment to the Jihadists’ plans for the country, I wonder, how likely is it that Russia itself will become a new ideological target for international terrorism?

GH: This is precisely the problem. To the extent that the, in part being provoked by the Sochi games, in part being the result of the promotion of the role and influence of the Caucasus Emirate within a global Jihadi movementas a result of their contacts in Syria, Russia is going to become more of a target. The positive side in that may be that the United States and Russia will start to cooperate a little bit more thoroughly. There’s no reason, for example, why the Boston marathon attack should have occurred.Better cooperation should have allowed us to avoid that along with an abandonment of some of the political correctness that seems to pervade the United States nowadays.

OB:I wonder, what could be a stimulus for that because you just mentioned the Boston marathon bombing and obviously, afterwards there was a lot of soul-searching on the part of American officials because several tips provided by the Russian counterterrorism officials were missed, but it seems that almost a year after that terrorist attack, we don’t see much in the way of cooperation between the security forces of Russia and the United States, or at least not much has been reported on that.

GH: Well, the Obama administration’s recent statements and from other people I talk to in DC at a recent conference were saying that the cooperation with the Russian security services around Sochi has been very good. Initially there were some statements by some congressman that there was a lack of information coming from the Russian security forces but most recent statements have been actually quite positive. Now, I don’t know whether, my guess is that those, that’s probably true - that in and around Sochi their cooperation is good because the United States has a direct incentive in protecting its athletes and citizens who are attending the games. Whether that will extend to other fronts in the global Jihad is another issue. One would have expected after the Boston marathon attack, although there was no direct or at least known direct operational tie between the Tsarnaevs and the Caucasus Emirate, there was certainly ideological influence of the Caucusus Emirate on the elder Tsarnaev, which was an important driver of his actions, there doesn’t seem to be a major change in the way the American media and the American government looks at the seriousness of the Caucasus Emirate, which is a very resilient, resourceful, innovative organisation.

OB:You know, sometimes I really get an impression that Americans are talking out of the both sides of their mouth because on one hand, president Obama and a number of other high ranking American officials expressed their confidence in the safety of the Sochi games but on the other hand, many U.S. media are runningamuck with the stories of how dangerous those games really are, and you do have a feeling sometimes that they really want something to happen during those games and I think what’s important to keep in mind is that if the terrorists really strike the Sochi games with the American team also present in Sochi, that will really hit home for all of us, isn’t it?

GH: Surely if there were an attack that led to American casualties perpetrated by the Caucasus Emirate, then I think that would help, in a negative, in a sad way, to spur better recognition in the United States and especially within the administration though I think in the American Government, especially in the intelligence services and the military, there’s a pretty good appreciation of the danger of the Caucasus Emirate. It tends to be in some of the more civilian departments of the government and in, of course, the mass media where you have this sort of rampant political correctness and other issues that tend to lead to down-playing and under appreciating the threat that the Caucasus Emirate poses because one thing that’s forgotten is the Caucasus Emirate has actually been involved in several failed plots or uncovered plots abroad, including in Belgium, in the Czech Republic and as well as a major plot that was planned to attack the Eurovision games in Spring 2012 in Azerbaijan - a multi-pronged attack similar to the Mumbai attack, so the Caucasus Emirate really is an international threat and, to that extent, the United States Government should be working with the Russians to deal with it.

OB:Well, I think when president Obama was asked about the security of those games he, while expressing his confidence that they are safe, he also said that you cannot possibly eliminate all the risks in trying to host those large-scale international events and indeed, as we just discussed, the security issues are always prominent. They were prominent during the London games, they are even more prominent during the Sochi games, I wonder if this is somethingthat will always be, from now on, associated with the Olympics regardless of where they are being held?

GH: Well, I think as long as we have a global Jihadist revolutionary movement and groups, this is going to be a problem for all international events and I’d like to add actually that the window of threat for Sochi actually extends through early June because we’re going to have the Paralympic Games in March and then the G8 is going to be meeting in Sochi on the 4th and 5th of July so this problem doesn’t go away for quite a few months as far as Sochi’s concerned. And of course, that’s going to require that the Russian security forces maintain a fairly large presence in and around Sochi for a good part of that period and that’s going to drain resources away from fighting the mujahideen in the North Caucasus. So, it’s quite a challenge.

OB:Well, I agree with you but, I don’t know about you, but we here in Moscow are really keeping our fingers crossed that no major attack takes place but Mr Hahn, this is all we have time for, thank you very much for being on theshow and to our viewers – if you like the programme or have any comments, please feel free to join the discussion on our Twitter, Youtube or Facebook pages and hope to see you again – same place, same time, here on Worlds Apart.