Three terrorist attacks in Volgograd in a short period of time — a female suicide bomb attack on a bus on 21 October 2013, a male suicide bombing at the train station on 29 December 2013, and another male suicide bombing on a bus on 30 December 2013 — have attracted considerable media attention and prompted security concerns over the Winter Olympics in Sochi. A common reaction to such events is to imagine the worse and anticipate further attacks, in this case on the Games themselves. Given the dire security situation in the North Caucasus and what appear from the outside to be repeated security failures by the Russian security services (including the failure to arrest and obtain usable intelligence from alleged rebels), this doesn’t require a great stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, there are a few reasons why the Volgograd attacks do not call for a rethink of the security situation at the Games and do not make an attack in Sochi more likely than a week ago.
Firstly, despite the attention they have attracted, the attacks do not change the fundamentals. The Sochi Olympics were and remain a top security concern for Russian officials, and there has always been an awareness of the risk of a terrorist attack there. That the North Caucasus insurgency, the Imarat Kavkaz (IK), has an interest in attacking the Games was long presumed given their proximity to the region and their close association with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This intent to attack the Games was confirmed when IK leader Dokka Umarov called for the Games to be targeted in a July 2013 video address. And the IK has long had the capability of carrying out individual terrorist attacks, including outside the North Caucasus. It is, after all, an insurgency, and attacks (including suicide bombing attacks) are carried out on a regular basis. If a group can build and detonate a bomb, there is always the possibility of transporting that bomb further away; if a group makes enough attempts, one is bound to succeed. The Volgograd attacks do not change any of this.
Yet the ability to carry out an attack somewhere at some time is not the same as the ability to carry out an attack wherever, whenever — this arguably requires much greater resources. Questions remain as to whether the IK has this capability, which is what will be required for an attack on Sochi itself. There is little in the IK’s recent history to suggest that it has either the depth of resources or the strategic leadership to strike at will. Historical references to Nord Ost and Beslan are misleading: today’s insurgency is fundamentally different in terms of personnel, leadership, and resources to that which carried out those attacks (and it is worth bearing mind that even those attacks were not expected at a given time and place).
A potential insight into capabilities comes from answers to the question: Why Volgograd? Controversial commentator Oleg Matveychev claimed that Volgograd was chosen for its “symbolic” value, and security services expert Andrey Soldatov suggested that its location in Central Russia offers a “psychological” advantage, demonstrating rebels’ ability to strike outside of the North Caucasus. Both are reasonable claims. But they don’t explain the decision to hit the same place three times. Each subsequent attack on the same location has diminishing psychological returns, and the ability to strike multiple places would almost certainly have a greater psychological impact. RAND’s Brian Jenkins opines that the “easiest explanation [for attacking Volgograd now] is that the terrorists had an operational capability in Volgograd and chose to use it before it was detected by authorities.” In addition to being the easiest explanation, it is also the most convincing one that I have seen thus far. But attacking before it is too late in a city where you have limited capabilities is a far cry from the ability to strike anywhere, any time.
The gender and alleged identity of the latest Volgograd bombings offers another interesting angle. The use of male suicide bombers is not that unusual, at least within the North Caucasus; yet most major terrorist attacks outside the region have employed female suicide bombers, and the attention on suicide bombing threats has focused on women, not men. For example, following the first Volgograd attack, police put out an alert for three potential female suicide bombers; one of them, Oksana Aslanova, was initially identified as the perpetrator of the second attack. It may be that this heightened focus on women made an attack perpetrated by a man less likely to be accepted (an untestable proposition, admittedly). The second bomber has been preliminarily identified as ethnic Russian Pavel Pechenkin (see previous link). Ethnic Russians are sometimes considered more dangerous because they are less likely to be intercepted by security procedures driven by stereotypes. The use of an ethnic Russian male instead of a woman from the North Caucasus may have made the attack more likely to succeed. But if catching people by surprise works the first time, it may not the second. That card has now been played and so may not be usable again for a Sochi attack.
The issue of leadership is also worth considering. I agree with Nina Ivanovna that Umarov is not a strategist. He has never demonstrated any kind of strategic vision or ability to orchestrate complex, coordinated campaigns. He has certainly never demonstrated the leadership, ability, charisma or innovation that made Shamil Basayev so dangerous.* Some have viewed the Volgograd attacks as evidence that Umarov is some kind of terrorist mastermind (a terrible concept at the best of times) capable of carrying out attacks throughout Russia. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that Umarov also called for attacks on the Universiade held in Tatarstan last summer, which was seen as the dress rehearsal for the Games . Nothing happened. Moreover, it is questionable whether Umarov plays any operational role in major attacks, which more often seem to trace back to groups operating autonomously in Dagestan. Current evidence suggests that Umarov does play a role in setting an agenda and giving general approval, but that his involvement does not extend beyond this. (This is not to say that his role doesn’t extend beyond this, simply that the public evidence to substantiate such an assertion is not convincing, and I prefer to deal only with the evidence I have, not the evidence others, such as officials, claim to have). Yet an attack on Sochi itself requires precisely the kind of strategic leadership that Umarov does not appear to offer. Given the heightened security around the Games, any plans for an attack would likely have to have been in place months, if not years, in advance. Last minute efforts to organize an attack are less likely to succeed than a well-planned operation.
It could also be argued that certain features of Russian society that make terrorist attacks generally possible are less applicable with regard to Sochi. The most obvious is bribe-taking, long a problem in Russian society. Bribes undermine security: it doesn’t matter how good security measures are if one can pay to sidestep them. Yet bribes are motivated by self-interest, and — given the Games’ importance to some very important people — the likelihood of an unpleasant fate befalling whoever is caught having accepted a bribe that led to an attack on them is so great as to be almost certain. Security here does not depend on any moral or abstract barriers. Self interest alone makes it less likely a person who would accept a bribe in normal circumstances would do so during the Olympics. And even if a person is still prepared to accept a bribe, the market value of that bribe will arguably increase enormously, potentially becoming prohibitively expensive for the IK. And multiple bribes may be needed to carry out a successful attack. Thus the avenues that can be exploited in normal times may, for a short period, become closed or much narrower.
None of this is intended to argue that a terrorist attack on Sochi itself will not happen — instead, I simply want to offer some food for thought about why Volgograd doesn’t make it any more likely, and perhaps to counterbalance some of the hype that inevitably follows an attack. Based on the information currently available, I view an attack on Sochi itself as unlikely — it requires greater leadership and capabilities than the IK appears to possess. If an attack does happen, one perpetrated by an individual bomber supported by a small group away from the attack area — as was the case for the Moscow metro bombing in March 2010 and the Domodedovo airport attack in January 2011, and as appears to have happened in Volgograd — is far more likely than a group attack like Beslan or Nord Ost (which, if it happens, will force a lot of people, myself included, to rethink their opinion on the IK’s capabilities). But, given the IK’s apparent weaknesses, the most likely option appears to be that there will not be an attack in Sochi itself and the IK will be limited to, at most, carrying out operations away from the Olympics and away from Moscow.
* It’s a separate debate, but I think his weakness is the reason he’s lasted so long when all other North Caucasus rebel leaders have such a short life expectancy. From the Russian perspective, if he dies, a more dangerous rebel leader could emerge; from a Dagestani rebel one, a weak Umarov may be preferable to a stronger Chechen leader or a fight over which ethnic group should lead the insurgency.