Last week I attended a briefing on “Terrorist Threats and Risks to the Sochi Winter Olympics,” sponsored by George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute. Frank J. Cilluffo, the Institute’s director and former Special Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, hosted a panel consisting of Tom Ridge, former Governor of Pennsylvania and first Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; Matt Bettenhausen, Vice President and Chief Security Officer of AWE Worldwide and former Director of the California Office of Homeland Security; and Dr. Bruce Hoffman, Director of the Georgetown University Center for Peace and Security Studies Program and the former Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency Chair at the Rand Corporation.
Here are the take-aways from that briefing.
Frank Cilluffo reminded us that terrorism is primarily a psychological weapon designed to erode confidence in all government institutions.
Governor Ridge believes the games will be safe and that Vladimir Putin’s so-called “Ring of Steel” will hold up. However, Ridge warned, “Never say, ‘Never.'”
Bettenhausen agreed that, “You can’t protect everything one hundred percent.”
Ridge noted with regret that terrorists have already demonstrated their ability to steal the focus from this peaceful world gathering and deflect the prestige of the accomplished athletes themselves. “The joy and excitement about going to the Olympics has already been diminished.”
All three noted that many athletes have told their families to stay home.
“The terrorists are already partially winning the battle,” Ridge continued, “just because we are having this conversation about contingency planning for extracting masses of people from a hot landing zone.”
“The Russians have had seven years to prepare, but so have the terrorists.”
Even with the many thousands of police, military personnel and security officers the host nation is putting in place, logistics could be nearly overwhelming. Ridge asked, “How do you manage tens of thousands of accreditations?”
Cilluffo added that there are also bound to be a number of corrupt individuals within so large a security force.
Because of both the world situation and that within the states of the former Soviet Union, including the ongoing insurgency in Chechnya, these Olympic games face the threat of multiple types of terrorist groups and scenarios, meaning threat assessment has to be broad and deep. Officials will not have the luxury of focussing on only one type of terrorist or set of tactics. And as has been seen in recent weeks, internal groups have already struck and made public threats.
Bettenhausen believes that the point of greatest vulnerability is mass transportation. Even if there is a Ring of Steel, people will have to get in and out from numerous locations and ground transportation – rail and bus – are nearly impossible to scrutinize to the same degree we now carry out in aviation. A single suicide bomber could have major disruptive and psychological impact. And all three of the panelists noted that any terrorist incident within Russia – even one geographically distant from Sochi – would be considered a successful strike against the games.
One of the concerns is that the Russians have been hesitant in accepting help from other participating nations and are unwilling to share critical information and intelligence. Cilluffo cited London as, “the gold standard for security and sharing information.” Ridge explained that this was a principle that was established at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the first major security event in the post-911 United States.
Hoffman voiced American concerns if there were a major incident, such as the hostage-taken of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. As proven by past situations, the Russians tend to respond with brute force to the exclusion of other methods and tactics, with resulting high casualty counts. Unless they invited us in, we would have no way to mitigate such a horror.
Near the end of the briefing, Cilluffo asked the three experts if each of them would attend the games, given the opportunity. In spite of the threats, all three said they would and would glory in the experience.
“But I would go, armed with knowledge of the threats,” Ridge stated. “I would be alert and aware of my surroundings.
“It’s not just jihadists. We had Eric Rudolph [the Atlanta Olympic Park bomber] and Tim McVeigh [the Oklahoma City bomber]. Terrorism is one of the permanent conditions of the twenty-first century.”
“It’s all about managing the risk.”