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Postdoctoral fellow examines security for the Sochi Olympics

The amount of uncertainty around the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics is genuine, according to Adam Molnar, a postdoctoral fellow with the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s. In an email exchange with Mark Kerr, Senior Communications Officer, Dr. Molnar discusses the security threats and the measures Russia is taking to prevent an attack.

Mark Kerr: What security threats exist around the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics?

Adam Molnar: A range of threats exists in and around Sochi for the 2014 Games. Perhaps the most pressing and potentially destructive comes from the threat of terrorist bombing or armed attack similar to those seen in previous months. In a video posted in July 2013, Doku Umarov, a leader of the armed resistance in the North Caucuses region, vowed to “disrupt the games,” and if bombings such as those that lead up to Sochi 2014 are any indication, attacks could continue. It is widely considered that many of these potential attacks could occur not at the Games, but in surrounding areas with a high volume of traffic such as shopping centres or public transportation networks in cities as far away as Moscow or St. Petersburg. Any attack in Russia during the Games is certain to grab headlines around the world. Therefore, specific spatial concerns might be less relevant for groups or individuals planning an attack given the potential for any attack to be widely broadcast.

Threats to the Games are not just about terrorism, however. By and large threats are broadly defined by security and policing officials to include any potential for political disruption of the event by activists or other persons, threats of corruption and counterfeit, and even threats from hackers who might be keen on disrupting the Olympic event or in surreptitiously acquiring sensitive personal information from the communications devices of individuals.

Adam Molnar, a postdoctoral fellow with the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen's, studies the security and policing of large events such as the Olympics.

MK: What forms could a potential terrorist attack take?

AM: An attack could include a suicide bombing or an armed attack such as what was recently seen in Nairobi and Mumbai.

The potential for a ‘lone-wolf’ type terrorist attack remains a distinct possibility even though the athletes’ village and spectator areas are some of the most heavily protected and safe areas in the world at the moment. It is quite difficult to protect against these types of terrorist attacks.

MK: Have the media overblown the security risks, in your opinion?

AM: The amount of uncertainty in the lead-up to the 2014 Games is no doubt genuine. A spate of recent attacks, harsh responses by Russian authorities which lead to the killing of suspected terrorists, and ongoing threats by potential attackers make this Games one of the most uncertain in Olympic history. The amount of focus that is given in reports concerning security and fears is relevant.

However, the effects of such reporting on the public imagination should be considered more critically. One of the more interesting ideas, though, is how heightened levels of fear and anxiety that flow from media reporting about the inherent vulnerabilities of urban life tend to have a chilling effect that sustains an idea that cities are inherently unsafe and insecure. This is concerning, particularly when we look at statistics from the Global Terrorism Research Database that show us just how rare terrorist attacks (and especially fatalities from terrorist attacks) actually are. For example, since 9/11 an average of three American citizens have died per year from terrorist attacks in the United States. This is an exceptionally small number given the amount of spending and coverage that follows national security issues. Given the amplification of risk that flows from incessant media reporting on the terrorism issue, I think it’s important not to lose sight of the larger picture when it comes to the ways that we more regularly consider security and terrorism in a way that is more representative of our everyday life in urban environments.

MK: What measures has Russia taken in order to maintain security during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics?

AM: Russia is undertaking the most sweeping security operation in Olympic history. Boasting some 100,000 security personnel, which includes 42,000 police and over 30,000 military, no other Olympics has surpassed (in terms of scale) the size of the security apparatus at Sochi. In addition to security personnel on the ground, Russian authorities are relying on extensive use of surveillance technologies such as video surveillance, around-the-clock drone surveillance that uses thermal imaging technology, and extensive internet monitoring where authorities will capture all internet communication, email and telephony data. The Russian Navy also has warships in the Black Sea area, and the military has set up surface-to-air missile stations. Significant changes to anti-terrorism legislation has also occurred – which will now order relatives to pay for damages caused in an attack, as well as stiffer penalties (up to 10 years) aimed at individuals who might be engaging in terrorist training activities. Of course, we have to consider how these measures will continue, and to what effect, after the 2014 Sochi Winter Games have ended.

MK: Are there aspects to these measures that are unique and never seen before?

AM: Many of these measures actually express similar trends seen at other Games around the world. However, they have not been surpassed in the scale of what we’re seeing at Sochi 2014 yet.

MK: How will the security measures impact athletes, spectators and the citizens of the region?

AM: The impacts are felt differently according to different populations. For athletes and spectators, they can expect to encounter a visibly heightened security presence, and will be going through strict access controls, similar to what we see at airports, when entering event venues, the athletes’ village, and other areas. The effects are certainly felt differently by citizens of the region, particularly to groups and individuals who live in the North Caucuses region. Changes to the Russian anti-terrorist legislation is causing some researchers familiar with the region to be apprehensive about how such changes could facilitate bribery and corruption by Russian officials in the region. And of course, as with any massive increase in security and surveillance infrastructure, questions linger about whether this build-up will be redirected at populations and individuals who are deemed ‘risky’ or otherwise ‘deviant’ by Russian authorities.

MK: You have studied the security and policing legacies of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Are there aspects of Russia’s security preparations that originated during the 2010 Games?

AM: These measures do follow some standardized policy templates that we are seeing from event-to-event. So many of the security measures that we’re seeing at Sochi 2014 didn’t emerge specifically from Vancouver – but have expressed tendencies in Olympic security planning that dates back as far as 1972 in Munich – and have evolved after the pipe bomb explosion in Atlanta 1996, as well as after 9/11 and successive Olympic events to follow. The extent to which Olympic security planners draw on similar standardized templates is common, but they also assume distinctly local characteristics when they are more specifically catered to responding to the threats (as both posed and understood) in more localized contexts that are specific to the Olympic city in question.

MK: What is the trend for security at “mega-events?” Is it becoming so complex that eventually the security costs will outstrip any benefits of hosting events like the Olympics?

AM: There is no doubt that the costs of providing security for the Olympics are staggering. My research has shown that approximately 20-50 per cent of overall expenditures to host an Olympic event are security-specific. This is an incredibly large percentage that should prompt further discussion about security and major events. Even developments in surveillance technologies and a bolstered security apparatus can do little to protect against an attack that is directed into a more outlying area. Accordingly, there is no such thing as perfect security. Given this, the effects of security transformations are often most acutely felt after the event is over – and when the changes in the security and surveillance apparatuses brought about to provide a safe and secure Games are redirected towards more vulnerable and marginalized populations.