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When Terrorism (That Never Happened) Made Headlines in Sochi

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
February 25, 2014
ForeignPolicy.com

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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.

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