The Threat Against the Olympics

A suicide bombing this week is just the latest attack by Islamist insurgents in the region.

09.18.13 9:45 AM ET

When a bomb went off earlier this week in Chechnya, no one in the war-ravaged region mistook it for thunder. For more than a decade, separatists have fought Russian forces in a brutal war of attrition that has left the local population battered and weary.

Without a doubt, the powerful blast in the Sunzhensky district—which turned out to be the detonation of a suicide car bomb in front of a police station and killed three policemen—resonated beyond the restive region and was heard in Moscow.

Russia is hosting the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, a city on the Black Sea only 300 miles or so from the Chechen capital, Grozny. Earlier this year a leading Chechen Islamist militant called for attacks that would disrupt the Winter Games.

The insurgency in the North Caucasus region presents a daunting security threat, and the prospect of violent disruptions to the high-level and closely watched event (which reportedly has a bill that already stands at around $51 billion) clearly has Russian officials worried.

Despite stepped-up safety measures, Russian security forces are routinely killed by insurgents. Last year more than 200 police and other law-enforcement officers were killed by insurgents.

In a series of strikes this week, here and in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, several people were killed. In the most recent attack, on Monday a man attempted to drive a Lada car stuffed with explosives into a local police station, but was thwarted by a sergeant who stood in the way of the car as it exploded, killing him and two other policemen.

“We had hoped all the terrorists had gone to fight in Syria,” said a local taxi driver, Said Ibragimov. “But the violence doesn’t stop.” 

According to Russian officials, the leader of the insurgency in the North Caucasus, Doku Umarov, was behind this week’s terror attacks.

Earlier this summer a video showed Umarov calling on his supporters to “show those who live in the Kremlin” that the insurgents are capable of disrupting the Olympics in Sochi. “They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors; on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea. We as mujahedin [holy warriors] are required to stop that, using any methods that Allah allows us,” said Umarov, a former construction engineer and a Chechen rebel leader since the early 1990s.

But the deputy prime minister of Dagestan, Ramazan Dzhafarov, tells The Daily Beast that the insurgency is losing steam and that fewer than 150 fighters remain active. Last year official forces killed 158 suspected insurgents. And so far this year another 100 have been killed, according to law-enforcement agencies. 

Dagestan, the biggest and most populated republic of the North Caucasus, is a place where insurgents often strike. Last year militants killed 62 security officials in Dagestan; this year another 34 officials have died in various attacks.

With terror hanging as a sword over the region, the residents of the North Caucasus republics long for normality.

Many avoid public gatherings, as civilians sometime fall victim to the attacks as well. Teachers and students at a local school still mourn two boys from the fourth grade who were killed in a bomb attack earlier this spring. As the mother of one of the boys said, the killing of the young children is “the real picture of terror.”