Considering the Caucasus Emirate Chemical Attack Threat to Sochi
February 6, 2014
World media have been focusing on rather vague threats against the Sochi Winter Olympic Games while overlooking a more specific and dangerous threat to attack the Games using chemical weapons.
On January 19, two mujahideen, identifying themselves as Suleiman and Abdurrakhman from the “operational diversionary group Ansar al-Sunna,” issued videotaped final testaments on the website of the Caucasus Emirate’s (CE) Dagestani network, the so-called Dagestan Vilaiyat (DV), recorded before they carried out the December 29 and 30 suicide bombings in Volgograd that killed 34 and wounded some 300. As media reports have highlighted, one of the bombers in the video promised an attack on Sochi that his viewers “will like.” “We’ve prepared a present for you and all tourists who’ll come over,” he said. “If you will hold the Olympics, you’ll get a present from us for the Muslim blood that’s been spilled.”
This threat is serious enough, but its implications are even more worrying in light of a statement made the previous day by Ansar al-Sunna’s commander, Amir Umar, published on the VDagestan.com site. In the statement, Amir Umar not only claimed responsibility for the Volgograd attacks, he warned of “attacks up to and including chemical attacks” ready to be approved by CE emir Doku Umarov.
How serious is the threat of chemical attacks carried out by the CE?
The first question to ask is from where CE mujahideen could acquire chemical agents that could be used in an attack. One possible source is Syria. There is some evidence that rebels in Syria may have acquired chemical agents from Bashar al-Assad’s stockpiles. Turkish authorities have arrested Syrian rebels inside Turkey with sarin, but no information has been made public about their nationality or allegiances. A recent article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh contends that CIA analysts reported to the Obama administration in the spring of last year that Syrian rebels may well have acquired some of Assad’s stockpiles of chemical agents. Certainly, with the chaos of an ongoing civil war in Syria and the more than 40 sites at which Assad’s chemical weapons have been reported to be located, it is possible that one or more jihadi groups could have acquired chemical materials.
Meanwhile, hundreds of CE mujahideen and hundreds more would-be CE mujahideen (if not for the CE’s lack of resources) are fighting in Syria under the banner of the two main al Qaeda–linked groups seeking to establish an Islamist state: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Jabhat al-Nusrah (JaN). Their ties back to the Caucasus insurgency represent a potential route for chemical weapons from Syria to make their way back to Russia.
Until November, the ISIS’s “Army of Émigrés and Supporters” was led by an ethnic Chechen from Georgia named Tarkhan Batirashvili (also known as Abu Umar al-Shishani), who has since been appointed emir of ISIS’s northern front around the pivotal cities of Aleppo and Idlib. Increasingly, Batirashvili is in a position to cash in on his Caucasus comrades’ contributions to the ISIS jihad; one potential reward could be access to a portion of whatever chemical agents ISIS militants might acquire. In recent weeks, several hundred of these émigré fighters who refused to take a loyalty oath to ISIS’s leader defected to the JaN. This group is also apparently led by ethnic Chechens from Georgia.
These fighters from the Caucasus in Syria have all had close dealings with CE and Amir Umarov. According to Batirashvili, they went to Syria “on the orders of Amir Abu Usman (Umarov).” Batirashvili promised that after victory in Syria and Iraq, the CE and North Caucasian mujahideen will come home “stronger and better prepared.”
Of course, Russian militants seeking chemical weapons also have opportunities to find them closer to home. There are large stockpiles of chemical weapons and materials situated across the country, including in Chechnya. Opinions differ about just how well Russian authorities secure such sites. Given the rampant corruption in Russia, especially in the North Caucasus, it cannot be excluded that CE fighters could have acquired chemical materials through bribery, if not theft. There is some evidence that CE or like-minded Islamists from outside the North Caucasus were focused on obtaining chemical weapons last year. On October 15, two native North Caucasians were arrested for plotting to carry out a terrorist attack at the Maradykov site for the storage and destruction of chemical weapons located in Kirov Oblast.
Given the presence of significant numbers of Caucasians fighting under the ISIS and JaN banners in Syria and the possibility that these groups have acquired some chemical weapons from the Assad regime, it is at least conceivable that fighters intent on attacking Russia have access to chemical weapons materials. Although it would be difficult for any CE or foreign mujahideen to smuggle chemical weapons materials from Syria into Russia and deploy them, the level of difficulty is at least potentially surmountable. So too is the difficulty of purloining chemical weapons from facilities inside Russia. CE mujahideen have proven adept at organizing suicide bombings but have never carried out a chemical attack, as far as we know. Nevertheless, given the resourcefulness and determination that CE mujahideen and emirs have displayed in the past, it would prudent to take this threat seriously.
Gordon M. Hahn is an analyst and Advisory Board member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation in Chicago, Ill., and a former senior associate with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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