Modern Counter-Terrorism in Sochi: more like counter-espionage


Gen. Syromolotov. I am charmed that his surname means “Cheese Hammers.”

Much has been made of the fact that Sochi Olympic security was put under the overall operational command of Oleg Vladimirovich Syromolotov, deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and head of its Counter-Espionage Service (SKR), rather than a counter-terrorism specialist. Somehow, this has been taken to be a mistake or else a sign of some kind of retrograde thinking, that Moscow really thinks the threat to Sochi comes from foreign espionage agencies or even that it wants primarily to use the Games for its own nefarious purposes. Let me disagree.

I’d actually suggest that this appointment made quite a bit of sense. I have no knowledge whether as a person or a professional Oleg Syromolotov is any “better” than his counterpart at the FSB’s Service for the Protection of the Constitutional System and Struggle against Terrorism, Alexei Sedov, but he certainly has some key strengths to bring to the position.

The first is simply one of seniority, or rather clout. At the best of times, domestic security within Russia means navigating a complex environment in which multiple, often antagonistic agencies overlap, collide, sometimes share information, at other times compete. A security task force for Sochi brings together representatives from the various stake-holders—FSB, police, military and the like—but it needs a “chief executive” with the clout to be able to override interagency rivalries. Syromolotov is a full general in rank, while Sedov’s background was in the Tax Police and the Federal Anti-Drug Service and a colonel-general (one rank step lower).

Perhaps most important is the nature of the threat. Sedov’s department—which goes by the unwieldy acronym SZKSiBT—has in recent years reorganized to address new challenges. However, it very much focused on the kind of large-scale, coordinated armed attacks such as the Beslan hospital and Moscow Dubrovka theater sieges. This is all very well, but does not really match the anticipated threat to Sochi. There is and has always been very little expectation that the North Caucasus insurgents would be able to mount such an attack on the Olympic site; they lack the unity and coordination of previous years, are unlikely to be able to gather in such strength in such an intensely watched area and likewise would have problems arming themselves.

Instead, the likely threat was always rightly seen in terms of a lone terrorist or maybe a relative handful, suicide bombers or maybe shooters: terrible, enough to shape the historical record of the Sochi Games, but small-scale enough to slip through the “ring of steel.” It is clear that the SZKSiBT has been unable to place agents within the “Caucasus Emirate”—this is only to be expected given that it is largely made up of a constellation of small cells largely made up of kin and friends—and thus is unlikely to have the kind of inside intelligence that is the best way of preventing such attacks. The SZKSiBT’s approach to terrorism, dependent on informants where possible, intensive interrogations of suspects and “kinetic responses”—shooting people—when attacks happen, has its place, but it is hard to see how it would be most effective in dealing with small-scale terror attacks before they happen.

Instead, the challenge here, of identifying “cold” potential terrorists from the residents, spectators, volunteers and workers at Sochi, running down leads, mounting surveillance and monitoring their contacts, all that is much closer to the tradecraft of the counter-intelligence service. Considering that the SZKSiBT is more geared to combating a different kind of terrorism, it actually makes considerable sense to allow the SKR to take the lead. Certainly this seems to have been the calculation for some time. He also ran security for the XXVII World Summer Universiade sports event in Kazan in 2013, giving him a useful chance to practice.

A week in, and things seem quiet but, sadly, the thing about security is that you only really notice its weaknesses or absences when something bad happens. Nonetheless, the evidence seems to be that Moscow has done its homework quite well for Sochi. From the unexpectedly unobtrusive security inside the “ring”—including those purple-uniformed police!—through to a lack of evidence of the usual inter-agency squabbles, Syromolotov and his cohorts appear to have grounds for cautious optimism. Of course, there is also scope for things to go wrong.

And we also need not to be naïve. Another reason for Syromolotov’s presence is undoubtedly the use of Sochi to trial the new SORM-3 electronic monitoring suite that allows the Russians to intercept and control communications in the area to an unprecedented extent. The value of these technologies is fighting terrorism at Sochi is pretty marginal, but the Olympics appear to be an opportunity to justify and test these capabilities, which would seem to have far greater utility dealing with a net-savvy and web-connected protect movement in Moscow. That is undoubtedly a Bad Thing in terms of the wider issue of the Russia’n state’s (probably ultimately futile) determination to try and master social media. But Syromolotov’s appointment in Sochi makes sense, regardless.

Современная контртеррористическая в Сочи: так же, как контрразведка

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