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Why the Sochi Olympics may be a prime terror target

January 21, 2014 at 6:44 PM EDT
Security pressures for the upcoming Olympics are high, due to the bloody history of its location. Sochi was the site of a massacre 150 years ago, bringing fresh symbolism to insurgents wishing to avenge more recent bloodshed. For more, Hari Sreenivasan talks to Robert Bruce Ware of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: To tell us more about the so-called black widows, we are joined by Robert Bruce Ware, a professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. He’s written extensively about the Russian Caucasus.

So, help us understand this black widow phenomenon.

ROBERT BRUCE WARE: The black widows first appeared in June 2000, when a woman detonated a bomb attached to her body at a Russian military base in Chechnya.

They attracted worldwide attention in October 2002 during the Moscow theater hostage crisis, when Chechen rebels distinctively featured female insurgents. And ever since 2003, there have been number of incidents in Russia, particularly in the North Caucasus, involving women related to martyred fighters who have detonated bombs on their bodies at various public events.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, there was a group called Villayet Dagestan that took responsibility for those horrible bombs that we just saw at the end of December. Who are — who is this group?

ROBERT BRUCE WARE: The group started during second Chechen war, and is affiliated with the broader called the Caucasus Emirate that seeks to separate the North Caucasus region from Russia.

Villayet Dagestan is based in the Republic of Dagestan, which is at northeastern end — sorry — at the southeastern end of this region, essentially in the area between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So you saw this 50-minute-long video where these two bombers basically laid everything out.

ROBERT BRUCE WARE: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What were they asking for? What was the purpose of their new threats against Sochi?

ROBERT BRUCE WARE: Well, in the long run, what they — the long-term goal is for Russia to leave North Caucasus region.

But what they’re doing in this video is demonstrating the assembly of some explosive devices that have been subsequently strapped to the bodies of the men who claim that — that Sochi Olympic events will be targeted.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, are there other groups that Russia needs to be worried about in addition to these folks who just claimed responsibility for the recent bombings?

ROBERT BRUCE WARE: There are throughout the North Caucasus a number of groups who have been agitating for the withdrawal of Russian forces and for the withdrawal of Russia from the North Caucasus region, and also are pursuing a number of local grievances involving local corruption, police brutality and so forth.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, is Sochi somehow sort of symbolic or important to these different groups? Is this a homeland?

ROBERT BRUCE WARE: Yes.

Exactly 150 years ago, the Circassian people, a people in the north — northwestern area of this region, essentially on the Black Sea, were deported en masse to Turkey and to other parts of the world and also suffered horrendous massacres, to the point that the events are often described as genocide.

So, the Sochi Olympics are taking place on the same site where the Circassian people were massacred and deported in a genocidal manner exactly 150 years ago. And one of the points that’s made in the video is that essentially the Olympic ceremonies are being held on the bones of their ancestors.

Now, the men in the video also say that they’re specifically taking vengeance for Muslim blood that’s been shed in Dagestan, in Somalia and in Syria.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, is there a history of sporting events in Russia being attacked as political statements?

ROBERT BRUCE WARE: There’s some history of it.

Specifically, there was a black widow attack at a Moscow sporting event in Moscow in 2005. And perhaps most notably, the Russian-installed leader of Chechnya, Akhmed Kadyrov, was assassinated at a soccer game in May of 2004 when the seat beneath him exploded.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Robert Bruce Ware, thanks so much for your time.

ROBERT BRUCE WARE: OK. Thank you.