When I was a manager and leader in CIA I would periodically receive down range brand new operational personnel fresh out of training. They would arrive, like all such individuals do in all professions, filled with all sorts of complex, theoretical ideas about how to conduct business and save the world. It would fall to me, as their new boss, to bring them back down to earth and inject some reality into the equation.
One of the many talks I would have with them would go something like this. "You have been told in training that things may go wrong in the field, that you need to be prepared for the possibility of having to change plans and adapt on the fly. This is a lie. It is not a matter of a possibility that things may go wrong. It is certain that things will go wrong. From the moment you go out the door on an op, things will begin to move in directions you did not desire, did not plan and in many cases did not anticipate. This may prove catastrophic. It may prove a nuisance. It will happen. Understand that. Accept ambiguity. Learn to be flexible. And, you had better have a Plan B in your pocket when Plan A goes out the window."
Let us hope that somewhere in the labyrinth of American intelligence and security agencies there is someone who has a Plan B for the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Socchi, Russia. In 1972, the Olympics were the target of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, which murdered eleven Israeli athletes. The 2014 Winter Olympics have the potential to become the venue for even more horrific terrorist acts.
Socchi sits on the shores of the Black Sea in the Northern Caucasus. That region has been torn for years by a bloody, brutal conflict between Russian security forces and Islamic extremists seeking to create a radical Islamic State. The Northern Caucasus is home to the Caucasus Emirate an Al-Qaida affiliate headed by Doku Umarov.
Islamic extremists from the Northern Caucasus have perpetrated some of the largest, most complex and most bloody attacks in the history of terrorism. In 2002 they attacked the Moscow theater and seized hundreds of hostages. By the time that event was over 130 hostages had been killed. In 2004 they seized 1300 hostages, adults and children, at a school in Beslan, Russia. Three hundred and fifty-five people were dead before that event concluded. At least 188 of those were children. In recent years the extremists have carried out a string of high profile bombings throughout Russia, the 2009 Nevsky Express railroad bombing in which 26 people were killed; the 2010 Moscow metro bombings in which 39 people were killed and the 2011 Domodedovo airport bombing in which 36 people were killed.
Umarov has made no secret of his intention to target the games. This past summer he released a video in which he called for jihadis to stop the Games. "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. Shortly thereafter a previously unknown jihadist leader calling himself, Salakhuddin, released another video in which he called for extremists from the Northern Caucasus who were going to Syria to wage war to stay home instead and prepare for attacks against the Olympic Games in Socchi.
Moscow has not been oblivious to all of this, of course, and the Russians have gone to great pains to assure the countries that will send teams to the Olympics that they are in control of the situation. Some twenty-five thousand police, eight thousand other security personnel, and twenty to thirty thousand regular-army troops will be deployed for the Games. The Russians have also stepped up pressure on extremists in the Northern Caucasus in recent months and have killed a number of senior jihadi leaders.
Still despite that pressure, extremist attacks continue. In September a police station in the Northern Caucasus town of Sernovodsk was attacked with a car bomb. Three police officers were killed. Last week a female suicide bomber in another city in the region detonated a bomb on a bus and killed six. In 2012 alone more than 200 Russian security personnel were killed by insurgents.
It would also be well for us to remember that the track record of the Russian security services and special operations forces in responding to terrorist attacks is not necessarily pristine. The Russians are many things, proud, resilient and brutal among them. They are not necessarily subtle or refined.
During the assault on the Moscow theater to free the hostages, Russian special forces pumped a still unknown incapacitating gas into the building. All of the terrorists were ultimately killed, and the siege was brought to an end. It appears, however, that a very large proportion of the hostages who died during the rescue were actually killed by the gas, which the Russians used.
Similarly, during the assault that ended the Beslan siege it is still very unclear how many individuals were killed by the terrorists and how many were actually killed by the assaulting Russian forces themselves. What is clear is that neither one of these events ended in anything like a refined, surgical hostage rescue operation. They were terminated by all out assaults in which it was inevitable that a significant number of the hostages were going to die.
Consider against that backdrop an attack on the Olympics along the lines of what we have seen out of Islamic extremists from the Northern Caucasus before or even along the lines of what we saw recently in Kenya in the attack on the mall there. A group of extremists assaults one of the Olympic venues, kills a large number of people, takes hostages and disrupts the games. Their objective is to use the world stage provided by the Olympics to bring publicity to their cause and to exert pressure on the Russian government to withdraw from the Caucasus and allow the creation of an Islamic state. Among the hostages are substantial numbers of American citizens.
Now add to this nightmare scenario the current political climate surrounding relations between the United States and Russia. Recent events, most notably in Syria, have made crystal clear that we are dealing with a proud, resurgent, increasingly nationalistic Russia, which believes we are asserting too much influence in the world and aims to change that. What we want, they will resist and they will waste no opportunity to draw a line in the sand and remind us that they do not dance to our tune.
Sochi Olympics 2014
Sochi is a city in Krasnodar Krai, Russia, situated on the Black Sea coast near the border between Georgia and Russia. Greater Sochi sprawls for 145 kilometers along the shores of the Black Sea near the Caucasus Mountains. | Photo: | Sochi, Russia, Olympics, 2014, Indoor Arena, Sports,
How receptive do you think the Russians will be to offers of assistance from us in resolving the crisis? What do you think the likelihood is that they will allow our military personnel on the ground inside Russia? What would you say the chances are that any hostage rescue operation will include American special operations personnel?
The reality is that in such a situation we will likely be nothing more than bystanders. Our people, perhaps already being slaughtered in large numbers, will live or die based purely on what decisions are made by Russian military and political leaders and how well Russian security and special forces personnel execute the orders they receive.
This is the situation in which we have placed ourselves and our athletes by virtue of accepting the choice of Socchi as a venue and Russian assurances of security as sufficient. We may yet come to regret both those decisions very much. One thing is for sure, when the shooting starts and the Russians start following the same game plan that got large numbers of people killed in Beslan and Moscow, I hope somebody somewhere on our side has a Plan B.