Three U.S. lawmakers and a former CIA official have voiced serious concerns over the security situation for athletes and fans at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
It follows a spate of deadly bombings and a threat from a separatist group over the weekend to deliver an unspecified “present” during the games to avenge “Muslim blood”.
Worries have been further exacerbated this week by a high-profile ongoing hunt for three women suspected of planning terrorist attacks, known as 'black widows' because they are believed to be motivated by a desire to avenge the deaths of their husbands or male relatives in Russia's long-running crackdown on Islamic seperatists.
Several Republican Congressman and a former intelligence official said over the weekend that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has sunk $50 billion into Russia’s first Olympic games since the fall of the Soviet Union, has been tight-lipped about Russia's ability to combat these terrorist threats and suggested Russia was not in control of security in Sochi. It comes less than three weeks before the games are set to begin.
“I think fundamentally they don’t want to admit that they don’t have complete control here and they might need some help,” former deputy director of the CIA Michael Morell told CBS on Sunday.
Putin, who has been criticized internationally for his outlawing of “homosexual propaganda” and other recent comments about gay fans and athletes at the games, has launched a 37,000-man security operation in and around Sochi, in Russia's southeast, largely in response to perceived threats emanating from the nearby Muslim regions.
The Olympics have in the past offered an oopportunity for individuals or groups to carry out attacks that have resonated worldwide. An anti-gay, anti-abortion extremist, Eric Rudolph, killed 2 and injured over 100 when he detonated three pipe bombs at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. And in 1972, a group of Israeli athletes were targeted by Palestinian armed men and held hostage in the Olympic Village. Following a bloody siege, 11 members of the Israeli squad were killed along with five members of the armed group and one police officer.
But the Russian president has staked personal and political prestige on the Sochi games, which are widely viewed as Putin’s attempt to show how far the country has come since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Extremist groups in Russia seem to have identified that opportunity. A string of bombings in the southern city of Volgograd last month killed at least 34 people and injured over 100. Two men who have been linked to those attacks, known only as Suleiman and Abdulrahman, released a new video over the weekend in which the pair, strapped into explosive belts, threaten a “surprise” at the Sochi Olympics.
“We have prepared a present for you, for you (President Putin) and all those tourists who will come over,” one man reads from a prepared statement. “If you hold the Olympics, you will receive a present from us. It will be for all the Muslim blood that is shed every day around the world, be it in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, all around the world. This will be our revenge.”
Meanwhile, wanted posters bearing the image of one of the 'black widows' have been plastered in public areas around Russia's southeast.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-MI, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, commented in response to those threats in an interview with CNN that aired Sunday.
“We don’t seem to be getting all of the information we need to protect our athletes in the games,” Rogers said. “They’re not giving us the full story about what are the threat streams, who do we need to worry about, are those groups — the terrorist groups who have had some success — are they still plotting?”
"I think they think this is a politically embarrassing situation for them — they're not going to share," Rogers continued. "That's really the wrong attitude when you're talking about an international event in a place where we've seen successful and targeted events."
In an interview Sunday on ABC, Putin reassured fans and athletes there was no need to worry about security in Sochi. “We have adequate means available to us” to protect against terrorist threats around the country during the Olympics, he said.
“We will try to make sure that security measures are not in-your-face, do not pressure the athletes and visitors or reporters. At the same time, we’ll do everything within our power to make sure those efforts are effective,” he added.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-TX, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, was dispatched by the U.S. to assess that claim.
“We have 15,000 Americans traveling to Sochi for the Olympics. And I want to do everything I can to make sure it’s a safe and successful Olympics,” McCaul said on ABC’s This Week from Moscow, where he will meet with the Russian government this week.
McCaul and others are particularly concerned that an evacuation of American citizens from Sochi in the event of an attack would be arduous given that Russian officials have historically been reluctant to allow foreign military forces, especially those of the U.S., on Russian soil.
"No matter what happens," the Russians "are not going to welcome with open arms" any intervention by outsiders, even in a situation where outsiders might only be seeking to rescue their own citizens, an anonymous source with the Obama administration told Reuters on Monday.
The State Department has warned Americans planning to attend the games to be vigilant about their security because of potential terrorist threats.
Senator Angus King, I-ME, told CNN he did not think the games would be safe enough for him or his relatives to attend.
"I would not go. And I don't think I would send my family," King said. “I don't know how you put a percentage on it, but it's just such a rich target in an area of the world that has — you know, they've almost broadcast that they're going to try to do something there."
King isn’t alone: Ticket sales for Sochi have been lagging. Whereas tickets for the Olympics usually sell out months in advance, plenty are still available for the upcoming games.