When Terrorism (That Never Happened) Made Headlines in Sochi

If attacks were unlikely at the Olympic Games, why was it spun as inevitable?

The XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, ended just as they began: with an ostentatious, exhaustive, and carefully scripted celebration of Russian heritage and culture. The 17 days of athletic competition featured all the riveting performances, unexpected disappointments, and weather-related updates that one would expect.

However, there was one event that U.S. politicians and pundits discussed for months -- which some described as inevitable -- that never occurred: a terrorist attack.

In the lead-up to the Winter Olympics, a fear-mongering media merely listened to alarmist policymakers and privileged the aspirational statements of marginalized terrorist groups. By irresponsibly providing little context for such threatening language, the media conditioned citizens to assume that violent attacks against innocent people were a near certainty.

It all started on Jan. 19, when Vilayat Dagestan, an affiliate of insurgent group Ansar al-Sunna, released a video statement in which two Islamist militants announced an intention to carry out jihadi attacks throughout Russia and promised a "present" for Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Olympics. This video came three weeks after two suicide attacks at a train station and on a trolley bus -- 400 miles from the Olympic Village in Volgograd -- that collectively killed 34 and injured up to 104.

Congressional members, purportedly relying on classified briefings, subsequently made the case that Sochi was not at all secure. Rep. Mike Rogers, chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said "We can only hope that they'll find those individuals before they're able to penetrate any of the rings. And I don't believe that the terrorists think they have … to have a terrorist attack on a particular venue. They just have to have some disruptive event somewhere." Rep. Peter King warned: "I cannot give [U.S. athletes] 100 percent guarantee. The fact is that these are going to be very much threatened Olympics." Rep. Michael McCaul, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, even went so far as to say that canceling the games should have been considered, saying, "I think there's a high degree of probability that something will detonate, something will go off." The list of policymakers goes on. In short, they chose sound bites over a balanced communication of the risks posed to Americans traveling to Sochi.

News reports repeated and amplified this narrative by warning about the proliferation of "black widows," women seeking revenge for husbands or family members killed by security forces: "Urgent Search for 'Black Widow' Suicide Bomber, May Be Already in Sochi" was one headline. During the six months leading up to the opening ceremony, the New York Times ran 72 articles about the Olympics that mentioned the threat of terrorism. USA Today reported that most of the major sponsors of the Winter Games had prepared "ads of compassion and support that could air following any incidents of terrorism." Unsurprisingly, in a CNN/ORC poll conducted during the week prior to the opening ceremony, 57 percent of Americans surveyed believed that a terrorist attack of some sort was likely at the Olympics.

Politicians and the media could have handled this more responsibly by communicating not only the probability of a terrorist attack at Sochi, but by reporting the true extent of terrorism throughout Russia.

Historically, Russia has suffered greatly from terrorism. In the 20-year period between 1992 and 2012, the country ranked seventh in the world for total terrorist attacks and related deaths, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. However, this statistic does not reveal the whole story of terrorism in Russia or the threat posed in Sochi specifically.

The group also reports that Russia was not among the top 10 countries for total attacks in 2012. Moreover, the frequency of attacks decreased during the first half of 2013, and fewer than 50 percent of these resulted in one or more fatalities. (Data is not yet available for all of 2013.) Since 1992, more than 70 percent of attacks have occurred in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia, and only eight attacks -- fewer than 0.5 percent -- have taken place in Krasnodar Krai, where Sochi is located. Moreover, while it is estimated that Chechen groups carried out 17 percent of the attacks between 1992 and 2012, the remaining attacks were carried out by other active groups in Russia. According to the Russian government, half of terrorist incidents in 2012 targeted local law enforcement and security forces, not civilians.

Thus, while a terrorist attack is always a possibility in Russia -- as well as in the 80 other countries where terrorism is present -- an attack against civilians in Sochi was always highly unlikely.

Moreover, congressional leaders could have pointed out that Chechen militant groups are losers. All three respected data sets that evaluate the successes of terrorist organizations found that Chechen groups largely failed to achieve their political or territorial objectives. What Vilayat Dagestan achieved by releasing a video was instant credibility, and the sort of free promotional airtime that is invaluable.

In 1975, terrorism scholar Brian Jenkins observed, "Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead." The media obviously needs people watching or reading, no matter what the issue. Inflating the probability and severity of terrorism is unfortunately a reliable way to achieve this. Thankfully, there were no terrorism incidents during the Winter Olympics. But with the World Cup kicking off in 107 days in Brazil, the media has plenty of time to yet again worry about the worst outcomes and emphasize the (implausible) potential threats to increase viewership.

Photo: VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images


These Aren’t the Terrorists You’re Looking For

Why does the Egyptian government insist on blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for every act of terrorism, even as a dangerous jihadist group claims the attacks as their own?

On Feb. 16, a bus full of South Korean tourists was idling near the Taba border crossing in South Sinai, waiting to cross from Egypt into Israel. As some passengers disembarked to retrieve their bags, a man walked up to the bus door and detonated himself, according to preliminary Egyptian security reports. The blast shredded the bus, killing three South Korean tourists and the Egyptian bus driver as well as injuring over a dozen more.

The explosion was only the latest in a string of terror attacks that have gripped Egypt recently, undermining the new government's efforts to establish a sense of normalcy. And there's no doubt whom the powers that be in Cairo blame: Ever since the overthrow of former President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's military-backed government has insisted that the Muslim Brotherhood is behind the uptick in terrorist violence throughout the country. This claim has been a critical component in Cairo's justification for its ongoing crackdown, as army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for mass protests to give him a mandate to confront "violence and terrorism" shortly after last year's coup, and the government declared on Dec. 25 that the Brotherhood itself was a terrorist organization.

The Egyptian government is now detaining suspected Muslim Brotherhood members for their alleged terror links. On Feb. 9, the Interior Ministry announced the arrest of members of a Muslim Brotherhood "military wing." The detained were allegedly involved in the slaying of five Egyptian policemen in the town of Beni Suef in late January. The accusations were reportedly detailed -- but in today's Egypt, it is hard to separate such claims from the politically-charged campaign against the regime's arch-rivals.

There's little doubt, however, that the real terror threat in Egypt currently stems not from the Brotherhood, but the jihadist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM). In recent months, the group has unleashed a barrage of attacks in its traditional base of North Sinai, and has also expanded the reach and sophistication of its attacks, orchestrating bombings in the Nile Delta, Cairo, and South Sinai -- including the Taba attack. The attacks outside North Sinai that ABM has claimed as its own, four of which have been suicide bombings, have killed at least 31 people and wounded more than 300 since September.   

However, the Egyptian government seems more focused on politicizing the threat by lumping together ABM and the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood's terror designation, for example, came a day after the deadliest attack outside North Sinai since Morsi's ouster -- a suicide car bombing outside a security site in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura that killed 16 and wounded more than 130. Even though ABM took responsibility for the attack, the regime insisted the Brotherhood was to blame. The same dynamic played out with the Taba bombing -- the Interior Ministry spokesman blamed the Brotherhood, even though ABM ultimately took responsibility.

Egyptian officials have claimed repeatedly that the Brotherhood itself is linked to ABM. Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, who was targeted by an ABM suicide car bomber in September, has accused the Brotherhood of supporting and financing attacks in Egypt. Egyptian security officials have also alleged an alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood, ABM, and the al-Furqan Brigades, another jihadist group. Other security sources contend that Brotherhood financier Khairat al-Shater gave millions to Mohamed al-Zawahiri, the brother of al Qaeda's leader, to buy weapons for Sinai jihadists. Evidence to support these serious allegations has yet to be presented.

In January, the Interior Ministry released what was said to be the first evidence linking ABM and the Brotherhood. It was the video confession of Yahia Mongi, who the Interior Ministry claimed was the son of a Brotherhood official. In the video, Mongi explained that he joined ABM in 2011 and played a role in the group's December attack in Mansoura.

However, the video may have been nothing more than a propaganda ploy. Mongi's father denied his connection to the Brotherhood, and so did the Brotherhood. But even if the Brotherhood and the family were covering for Mongi, his confession does not amount to a smoking gun. One member of the Brotherhood joining ABM does not mean that it is owned or controlled by the fallen Islamist movement.

There is no doubt that some members of ABM were previously part of the Brotherhood. For example, ABM's Ahmed Waji, who died in a September 2012 cross-border attack against Israel, was unapologetic about leaving the Brotherhood because it was not implementing violent jihad.

"I was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and I trusted its leadership completely.... I was raised in their arms while I was young," Waji said in a posthumous clip released by ABM in January 2013. However, he said, he was surprised that upon assuming power, the Islamist organization did not implement their credos, which included "jihad is our way" and "death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations."

It's unclear how many members of the Brotherhood have joined ABM -- but the jihadist group is certainly trying to bring disillusioned Brothers into their ranks. For example, in an October video, ABM's Walid Badr, the suicide bomber in the group's September attack targeting the interior minister, made a direct plea to frustrated Islamists: "Enough playing around," he said. "Why do you shy away from armed confrontation? Logic dictates that iron must be faced with iron and fire with fire."

Whether or not this strategy is working is still unclear. There is little reliable information about the number of fighters within ABM's ranks -- and the information about the backgrounds of the fighters themselves is even harder to come by. But this does not seem to bother the regime in Cairo, which continues to push the claim that ABM is either loyal to the Brotherhood -- or that the two organizations are one in the same.

To be sure, Brotherhood officials have made irresponsible comments regarding the recent violence, which has only served to irk the regime. However, there is simply no conclusive public evidence at this point detailing the Brotherhood's direct involvement in ABM attacks or financial support for the jihadist group.

While a legitimate argument can be made that the Morsi regime maintained a soft policy on Sinai jihadists, was cozy with Islamist radicals who called for jihad in Syria, and that it released jihadists who should have been jailed, the current allegations appear to be more grounded in politics than reality. In fact, a recent investigation by the Egyptian publication Mada Masr found that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military body that ruled the country immediately after Hosni Mubarak's fall, likely released far more Islamists than Morsi. Remarkably, Egyptian officials have also been caught lying about when certain suspected militants were released: In late October 2013, Egyptian officials announced the arrest of Nabil al-Maghrabi, who officials said was close to Walid Badr and had been released as a result of a Morsi pardon. However, press reports indicate that Maghrabi was actually freed in June 2011 -- during SCAF's rule.  

The Egyptian government appears to be hoping to further wreck the Brotherhood's reputation -- something the organization has done effectively on its own -- by tying the group to ABM. However, in the absence of any verifiable evidence to back up this claim, their strategy may be backfiring in two significant ways: For one, it has served to harden opinions abroad about the regime's anti-democratic tendencies. But more importantly, it may inadvertently be pushing some Brotherhood cadres -- in particular those already promoting small-scale violence -- into the waiting arms of the jihadist group. Thus, the unsubstantiated political narrative of Egypt's rulers may, perversely, be exacerbating the nascent insurgency they're trying to fight.

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