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Nerves are fraying over security at Sochi Games

RUSSIA is putting a brave face on it.

But the threat of a terrorist strike at the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi is making a lot of people nervous.

With little over a month to go before the Games open, the suicide bomb attacks in Volgograd and Pyatigorsk during the last week have given the Russian security services, intelligence analysts and Olympic organisers sleepless nights.

While no group has yet claimed responsibility for the blasts that killed 34 people last Sunday and Monday, few doubt that the root of the threat lies in the volatile North Caucasus region that is home to fundamentalist separatist insurgencies spawned during the two wars that gripped Chechnya in the late 1990s.

For a long time now Caucasus militants have remained a thorn in the side of the Russian authorities having carried out devastating terrorist attacks across the region including Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, as well as the Russian heartland.

Many intelligence analysts point to the man some have dubbed the 'Russian bin Laden' as the mastermind most likely behind these terrorist strikes.

Doku Umarov is the 49-year-old leader of the regional terrorist network known as the Caucasus Emirate. A former Chechen war field commander, it was as far back as 2005 that Umarov announced he was launching a holy war, or jihad, to create an Islamic state from the Black Sea to the Caspian.

By 2009 that campaign was in full swing as Umarov's Islamists targeted Russia proper with attacks on a St Petersburg train followed in the next few years with bombings on the Moscow metro and the city's Domodedovo airport.

But it was in May last year that a specific threat to the Olympics in Sochi was realised when Russia's security services found a weapons cache in Abkhazia that included shoulder held surface-to-air missile launchers, flamethrowers gren-ades, maps and other documents.

According to the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the country's primary counterterrorism and security agency formerly known as the KGB, three members of the Caucasus Emirate were detained and interrogated. From this questioning officials became convinced the weapons were to be smuggled into Sochi to be used as part of a terror campaign around the time of the Games.

Umarov himself, on behalf of the Caucasus Emirate, used a video posted on YouTube last July calling on people from the Caucasus - specifically Islamic insurgents - to use "maximum force" to stop Russia from holding the Sochi Olympics.

Some security specialists have suggested that the video had more to do with bluster than any real capacity by Umarov's cadres to deal a terrorist body blow to a winter Games that are already the most expensive in history and have become the pet project of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

These sceptics point to the fact that the Caucasus Emirate group has been suffering from a manpower problem and lacks the personnel to carry out such an operation.

What remains a cause for concern though is how Umarov's call might inspire what is known in security parlance as "lone wolf" or "grassroots" jihadists to carry out attacks. It is worth remembering that one of the two young Chechen immigrants who carried out the deadly bombing at the Boston Marathon in the United States last year drew inspiration from Umarov's calls for militants to engage in such operations.

Several leading counter- terrorism experts insist that Russia's security services are not best disposed to deal with this kind of small unit or lone wolf operation that was also the hallmark of last week's bombings in Volgograd and Pyatigorsk.

By and large Russia's security services are geared up to respond to much larger groups than those small, flexible units of terrorist operatives from training camps in the mountains and forest of Dagestan, who have no obvious links to a chain of command.

Given such a threat, questions continue to be raised - albeit too late now - about the choice of Sochi as a venue for the Games.

For his part it was President Putin who in 2007 persuaded the Olympic Committee to chose Sochi.

A Russian sweetener of £7 billion, twice what was proposed by other host countries, and Mr Putin's personal lobbying tipped the balance in favour of Sochi despite its precarious geopolitical location.

In the face of last week's bombings which some say might be the terrorists way of testing the authorities, Moscow remains defiant and determined that the Games will carry on without a hitch.

To that end there will be massive security operation. Participants and spectators alike will be, screened, monitored and put under surveillance. Background checks will be done on ticket holders. Telephone and internet use will be tracked, drones, high-speed patrol boats and troops deployed.

There will 'controlled security zones' clearly demarcated that will cover a large territory among them an area 200 miles east of Sochi and the external border between Russia's Krasnor Krai region and the breakaway Georgian territory of Abkhazia.

But despite this massive security undertaking, fears remain. With the focus on Sochi the rest of the country remains vulnerable.

Security specialists say too the job is made all the more difficult by the recent turn toward "Russian Muslims" as suicide bombers. This in effect means ethnic Slavs who have converted to Islam and can blend into Russian society until they are ready to strike.

It is now believed that one of the suicide bombers who carried out the Volgograd train station attack last week was an ethnic Russian male who converted to Islam.

Russia is no stranger to hosting high-profile global events. On the face of it, the Sochi Winter Olympics provide Moscow and strongman President Vladimir Putin with the perfect platform for proving the muscle of Russia's security apparatus.

But only the most naïve would underestimate the challenge they face or that Russia will breathe a sigh of relief if the 2014 Winter Games passes off without the kind of terrorist atrocity that became a global hallmark of 2013.

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