Sochi Games 2014: US issues toothpaste bomb plot warning

Intelligence alert comes after weeks of warnings that Winter Olympics may be targeted by terrorists

(Image credit: 2011 AFP)

THE US has warned that terrorists may be plotting to bring down planes heading for the Winter Olympics using explosives hidden inside toothpaste tubes. The Department of Homeland Security issued the alert to airlines less than 48 hours before Friday's opening ceremony in southern Russia. Any liquids, including those in containers smaller than 100ml, have been banned on flights heading into Sochi.

The alert comes after weeks of warnings that the Games could be targeted by terrorists. Despite a 'Ring of Steel' security zone, a 40,000-strong police operation and hi-tech surveillance, not everyone is convinced that the event will be secure. The terrorist attacks in the Russian city of Volgograd and the ongoing threat from Islamist militants have prompted warnings that visitors to this month's Winter Olympics in Sochi are walking into a "war zone". Here are five key questions about the threats to the Games and the massive security operation designed to protect visitors and athletes.

Why are the Sochi Olympics under threat?

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The two terrorist attacks in late December – suicide bomb attacks on a railway station and a bus – took place in Volgograd, a "key connecting point" for those travelling to Sochi, writes David Slatter on

Slatter, an academic who has written extensively about Russian security, says the seeds of the threat to Sochi were sown in 2005, when leadership of the Chechen separatist movement passed to Doku Umarov, a field commander who announced that he was "beginning a holy war to create an Islamic state from the Black Sea to the Caspian". Umarov's ascendancy caused an immediate spike in deaths from terrorist attacks, particularly in Dagestan.

Umarov has the Sochi Games firmly in his sights. He has ordered his fighters to "do their utmost to derail" the Games, which he describes as "satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors".

Is Umarov the only threat?

He's the most potent and high-profile threat to the Games, but there are others. Nikolai Petrov, a leading expert on Russia's regional politics told the Christian Science Monitor that other forces, including members of pro-Moscow Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov's retinue and rogue elements of Russia's own security services, may have a "strong interest in aiding and abetting more acts of terrorism".

Kadyrov wants to maintain his "free hand" in Chechnya and ensure funding from Moscow after the games, explains Petrov, while some in the Russian security services have interests in companies that "provide security for airports and other transport infrastructure". It means that terrorism is "big business, and there are people with a real, material interest in keeping it going".

What is Russia doing to protect visitors?

The Sochi Games have reportedly cost a staggering $50bn and the security operation to protect them is suitably immense. There will be at least 40,000 police operating in the Sochi region – double the number on duty during the London Olympics.

Sochi's so-called 'Ring of Steel' is a security zone about 60 miles long and 25 miles deep. It will be divided into two areas: a "controlled zone" near Olympic venues will limit access to people with tickets and proof of identity while another "forbidden zone" will be in place in large areas around Sochi. Vehicles that have not registered with Games officials will be banned and the sale of firearms, explosives and ammunition is prohibited.

Any other measures?

Plenty. Any threat from the air will be countered by Russian Air Force fighters and at least a dozen drones, Christian Science Monitor reports. Moscow has also deployed ultra-modern S-400 and Pantsir-S anti-aircraft missiles in the area. Any threat from the sea will be handled by four of the Russian Navy's new Grachonok anti-saboteur patrol boats which will range up and down the coast. A computer system called Sorm is being used to monitor all internet traffic sent by people in the area, while intelligence services have reportedly been carrying out background checks on Sochi ticket-holders. The US has also placed two warships in the Black Sea in case of a security breach during the games.

Will the security measures work?

Russia is confident they will, but not everyone is so sure. David Slatter says it is "impossible" to guarantee the security of Olympic visitors, while Tim Marshall, diplomatic editor for Sky News, says an attack elsewhere in Russia is actually more likely than one inside the 'Ring of Steel'. He warns that an attack that targets citizens from other countries made between now and the closing ceremony on 23 February is likely to be seen as “successful” in the eyes of terrorists.

One thing is sure: Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has staked his reputation on a successful Games, faces an enormous challenge. Experts told Christian Science Monitor that keeping the Olympics safe, without suffocating them in omnipresent security measures, is Putin's greatest challenge.

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