Note: This post is part of a multi-part series on the status of Russian security efforts for the Olympics. The purpose of this series is to keep SOFREP readers informed on the latest developments regarding the games as they draw closer.
Recent reporting from Russian journalism center Agentura.ru released preliminary reports of a massive ongoing “anti-terrorism” sweep of Russian security forces in the North Caucasus territory of Stavropol Wednesday. This sweep was in response to the discovery of five dead bodies and multiple improvised explosive devices in three rural areas of the region, as well as claims of an alleged female suicide bomber being detained by the FSB while traveling in Stavropol on a bus with a small child believed to be her son. While current reporting regarding the actual number of bodies discovered (at least five, possibly six victims) is conflicting, several facts remain consistent.
According to reporting compiled by the BBC, the five bodies were left inside four cars in the rural foothills of southern Stavropol. Two of the vehicles were booby-trapped with improvised explosive devices. One of these devices detonated three meters from police forces as they approached the vehicle to secure the scene after discovering the body, resulting in no casualties. Initial estimates suggest the detonated device was low-order and contained 0.5 kilograms of TNT but was packed with shrapnel for fragmentation. The second device was disarmed by robot arm and contained only 600 grams of TNT, also contained shrapnel and was of similar construction to the first device. All of the victims possessed gunshot wounds, and at least two of the victims were taxi drivers.
According to the BBC, “Stavropol is particularly vulnerable to attack from Islamist militants in the North Caucasus as it borders the mainly Muslim regions of Chechnya, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia.” Stavropol’s geographic location becomes all the more relevant in light of the current Russian security posture and fast-approaching Winter Games in Sochi, only 186 miles away. Currently the FSB has named three suspects in the murders, two of which are allegedly Islamist militants with a history of violent activity and murders. Both of the militants belong to a group that recently aligned with the primary Islamist terrorist organization in the region, the Caucasus Emirate.
While reports of the female suicide bomber are still preliminary (she is currently in FSB custody being interrogated for information), the fact that she was reported to be wearing a suicide device, traveling with no one other than a young child, and traveling on a bus remains highly disconcerting. As SOFREP has previously reported, Russia’s infrastructure and transportation networks remain very vulnerable during the Olympic Games and is one of Putin’s most difficult challenges to secure.
Based on historical analysis of Islamist terrorist activity in the Caucasus in recent years, it is also evident that transportation networks are preferred terrorist targets and pose consistently soft targets to strike. Further information regarding the alleged suicide bomber’s ethnicity, details of her apprehension, and specifics regarding her suicide device (allegedly a suicide belt) would prove very useful for further specific analysis.
It remains to be seen whether or not the Stavropol incident is related to possible terrorist activity in the region (possibly associated with the upcoming Olympic Games) or simply an act orchestrated by organized crime syndicates in the region at a poor time. As mentioned above, Stavropol possesses very significant geographical relevance to both Russia and the North Caucasus, due to its close proximity to both. This close proximity also makes it a melting pot for both religions and ethnicities, and would provide the perfect staging ground for any possible Islamist terrorist attacks from the Caucasus into the surrounding region.
Security experts have suggested that this incident could be a ruse to draw Russian security focus away from their true intended targets, whether they be in Sochi or other locations, such as Moscow. While security efforts are focused in Stavropol, it is possible other vulnerabilities in Russian security emerge. However, it is more likely that any pending Islamist terrorist attacks would have been planned and emplaced well in advance of the games, and not less than one month prior to their start. Regardless, Stavropol itself is no stranger to terrorist activity just like the majority of the Caucasus region, and last experienced a terrorist bombing at the hands of a Russian nationalist who detonated a radio-controlled explosive device at an ethnic Chechen public gathering in 2010, killing at least six and injuring more than forty.
The Russian response to the discovery of multiple bodies and explosives, while headed by the FSB, will most likely fall on the Spetsnaz and local police forces in the area. The city of Stavropol lies in the middle of the Caucasus Mountains, and is in the vicinity of the approximate area of Spetsnaz security coverage for the upcoming Olympics. Based on the number of bodies, vehicles, and explosive devices reported in this region Wednesday alone, it is evident that the FSB will require the use of forces that are able to rapidly detect, identify, and secure multiple threats in close temporal proximity across varying geographical proximity. Local police forces will likely not possess these resources and will therefore be forced to rely on more capable agencies, such as the Spetsnaz under control of the FSB, who has reportedly already been named as the lead agency in the suicide bomber investigation.
In order to enhance their awareness in Stavropol, Russian authorities have also opened a hotline for residents, requesting that they report any suspicious activity, objects, behavior, or vehicles to police forces. They have also established a security cordon around the primary vehicle locations and prepped the area to receive the Spetsnaz forces, urging locals to “maintain calm and restraint, to not panic, not break the [security] cordon boundaries, to show respect for the participants of the counterterrorist operation…[and] to not use mobile phones near the [security] cordon.”
Thanks for listening.
Hat tip to Ken C. for keying us in on this incident and helping SOFREP’s readers stay informed with the latest news and intel. It’s the respectful, intelligent, and mutually beneficial dialogue from the readers that keeps us going strong!