02/05/2014 - 21:53

Radiological Terrorism: A Sochi surprise?

Jerry Sergei Davydov

Jerry Sergei Davydov

Jerry Sergei Davydov is a research associate in the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Davydov’s research interests focus around security...

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With the Sochi Olympics less than a week away, there has been growing anxiety about the security of the athletes, Olympic personnel, and spectators attending the Games. Security has been stepped up in recent weeks following the double suicide attacks in Volgograd that killed over 34 people. Reporting in recent weeks has bordered on the frantic, as Russian authorities continue to receive new names and photographs of would-be female suicide bombers, dubbed “black widows.” 

Russia’s Olympic Organizing Committee Chief Dmitry Chernyshenko assured journalists that Sochi is the “most secure venue at the moment on the planet.” President Vladimir Putin has promised a 60-mile long and 25-mile deep “ring of steel” around Sochi, with a security cordon guarded by almost 100,000 security personnel— including 40,000 police at the Games, 30,000 military personnel in the Sochi area, 10,000 troops in the surrounding mountainous belt, Russia’s 58th Army guarding the Georgian border, and more than 400 Cossacks in full traditional uniform. (Cossacks are descendants of nomadic settlers in the southern parts of Russia and Ukraine with a long military tradition, best known as an informal horse-borne border guard, dating back to at least the 15th century.)

In addition, unmanned drones, bomb sniffing dogs and robots, metal detectors, S-400 and Pantsir-S anti-aircraft missile systems, patrol boats with teams of divers, and Russia’s GLONASS satellites will be deployed at the Olympic Games.

Although much attention has recently been paid to security at the Sochi Olympics, threats are anything but new. As early as February 2007, Jamaat Shariat, a Dagestan-based terrorist group, promised to “attack any of so-called participants of Olympiad who represents the countries at war against Islam and Muslims.”

Doku Umarov, leader of the Caucasus Emirate, the umbrella organization that leads and coordinates attacks across the North Caucasus, followed up on these threats in July 2013, urging his followers to use “any means possible” to ensure that the Games do not take place.

More recently, in January 2014, two would-be suicide bombers promised a “surprise package” for Russia and for Olympic spectators.

The reference to a “surprise package” is particularly troubling, considering the pattern of seizures of radioactive material across the Caucasus over the past two decades. It is possible that one of the groups in the North Caucasus might possess small amounts of radioactive material, and that the surprise is a radiological dispersal device, commonly referred to as a ‘dirty bomb.’

In June 2010, Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov, during a meeting with the heads of Russia’s intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies, raised concerns that terrorists in the North Caucasus intend to disrupt the Sochi Olympics and are actively seeking weapons of mass destruction that they may use or threaten to use against the Olympics.

Concerns over loose radioactive materials emanating from the North Caucasus being used by terrorists is nothing new for Russian citizens. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union many sorts of radioactive material have been found out of control across the region.The highest profile events occurred on November 23, 1995, when the Russian Independent Television Network was alerted to a package possessing the highly radioactive isotope cesium 137 that a Chechen group had placed in Moscow’s Izmailovsky Park. Though the container was not detonated, it caused a wave of panic throughout Moscow.

The fact that terrorists based in the North Caucasus have long attempted to get access to radioactive materials has led to the very real possibility that terrorists will construct and attempt to detonate a dirty bomb in the vicinity of the Sochi Olympics. The problem with a “ring of steel” is that the defenses of the ring are designed to protect the immediate area of the ring itself but not necessarily the greater territory surrounding it, where there are softer targets and a larger potential for a successful terrorist attack. A dirty bomb attack outside the ring would have almost the same effect as a dirty bomb attack inside the ring.

If the use or threat of use of a dirty bomb occurs during the Sochi Olympics, Russia would have to evacuate tens of thousands of athletes, Olympic personnel, and spectators. Clean-up, decontamination, and other costs would be in the billions. Furthermore, an attack could cause mass panic; tens of thousands of the affected as well as the "worried-well" might rush for immediate health care, further paralyzing the area.

Taking into account the numerous attempts of terrorists in the North Caucuses to acquire nuclear or radioactive materials, and the promises of terrorist attack against the Sochi Olympics, the threat of radiological terrorism must be taken seriously. Russian personnel must prepare contingency options in the event of a radiological attack, including mechanisms by which security personnel can calculate the credibility of any potential attack. Most important, Russian personnel must be ready to cope with mass panic in the event of threat of or actual radiological attack.