New Details Emerge of Threats to Olympians, Travelers in Sochi

Officials question effectiveness of U.S.-Russian cooperation.

A policeman stands at a roundabout on Feb. 4, 2014, in the Olympic park in Sochi, Russia, before the start of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.

“There are a number of specific threats of varying degrees of credibility we’re tracking,” Matt Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center told the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday.

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New details on the wide swath of threats facing Olympic athletes and anyone else visiting Sochi emerged this week, just days ahead of Friday's opening ceremonies. 

Matt Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center told the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday the U.S. has identified specific dangers. 

“There are a number of specific threats of varying degrees of credibility we’re tracking,” he said, adding that many of these are what intelligence analysts expected leading up to any world  event as large as an Olympic games. 

These threats likely stem from the Imarat Kavkaz, an Islamic extremist group based in the Caucus region near Sochi, Olsen said. 

He echoed analysis from other experts who say that the specific Olympic venue in Sochi is as protected as it can be, under the guard of 140,000 military and security forces within what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls a “ring of steel.” But the surrounding township and, indeed, all of Russia remains vulnerable to terrorism. 

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Olsen declined to comment more specifically on the kinds of strikes the U.S. anticipates, but  Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the chairman the House Homeland Security Committee, offered a few more details to CNN. 

“What I’m most concerned about are these suicide bombers,” he said, citing the twin December suicide bombings in Volgograd, roughly 400 miles northeast of Sochi. One of the attacks took place crowded bus and another in a train station. Together, they were designed to terrorize anyone who might use public transportation.

McCaul, who visited Sochi in recent days, believes a bomb on airplanes or ground transportation is likely the greatest threat. He also disagrees with Olsen’s assessment that the U.S. and Russian authorities are working well together. 

“Our cooperation is what I think is lacking with the Russians, in terms of sharing terms of emergency response,” he said. The U.S. indicated it might be willing to help the Russians employ some of the counter-IED technology it has developed over more than a decade at war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I’m not sure the Russians want our help with that," McCaul said. 

President Barack Obama received a briefing at the White House late Tuesday on the status of security at the Olympic venue. 

“He was assured by his [national security] team that they are taking all appropriate steps regarding the safety of Americans,” the White House said in a readout of the meeting. “He directed them to continue to work closely with the Russian government and other partners toward a secure and successful Sochi games, and to review carefully and act on any new information that might affect the security of the games.”

Members of the meeting include Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and FBI Director James Comey, among other National Security Council staff. Obama told CNN last week that Americans should not fear attending the games, but should also exercise significant caution.

“I believe that Sochi is safe and there are always some risks at these large international gatherings,” he said. “The Russian authorities understand the stakes here. They understand there are potential threats out there. If you want to go to the Olympics, you should go to the Olympics.”

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He advised all American travelers to check in with the State Department for further security updates. 

The State Department said in a Jan. 24 travel warning that the Olympics will be an “attractive target for terrorists,” and cited the three suicide bombings that have occurred since Oct. 15, including the two Volgograd attacks. “Travelers to Sochi should expect increased police presence and enhanced security measures in and around the Olympic venues,” the warning said. “There is no indication of a specific threat to U.S. institutions or citizens, but U.S. citizens should be aware of their personal surroundings and follow good security practices.”