Nicole Spewak

It was 150 years ago that Circassians living in the northeastern Caucasus Mountains were driven from their homes by the Russians, leaving 600,000 dead through slaughter and lack of life necessities.

Now, in 2014, Islamic radicals living in the Caucasus Mountains have seized this history and used it as fodder to threaten the Olympic Games to be held in Sochi, a city resting only 400 miles away from the militants of the restive region.

In some ways, the groups planning terrorist activity against the Olympics have already succeeded.

A basic goal of terrorism is to instill fear, and media coverage in the past weeks reveals that the world certainly is terrified for the athletes they are preparing to send to the Sochi Olympic Games.

One source of this fear comes from leader of the Caucasus Emirates, Doku Umarov. Recent Russian news reports state Umarov has been killed, although there is some doubt to the veracity of the story.

Umarov made it clear that the history of the Caucasus is not forgotten in a video posting. In the summer of 2013, Umarov directly threatened the 2014 Olympics, stating, “They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims, buried on the territory of our land on the Black Sea.”

In fact, in this history, the city of Sochi itself holds meaning. Brian Williams, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth wrote here, “Critically, the fleeing Circassians’ final port of departure from their ancient homeland was the Black Sea town of Sochi.”

Further, it is not only the Circassians who have felt the heavy hand of Russia. Another nation native to the Caucasus, Chechnya, has also.

Over the years, the Chechens’ main demand has been one of self-determination, or the desire for their own autonomous country.

Between Stalin deporting the Chechens to Siberia and two wars between Russian and Chechen forces during the 1990s, the Chechens are still far from accomplishing this goal.

Now, some radical Chechens are adding to the threats on the Olympic Games.

This historical context adds much to an understanding of the threats emanating from prominent terrorist groups in the Caucuses. They feel wronged by Russia, and this is their chance to champion to the world their believed right to and desire for an autonomous country.

Although context illumines the threats, it in no way condones terrorist actions, even from those who feel wronged.

Reacting in fear

Arguably rightly so, the world has responded with fear to the threats against Sochi.

Will the Chechen terrorist groups use violence to broadcast their desire for an independent land?

A Washington think tank called the Sochi Olympics the “holy grail” for Islamic radical terrorists.

The Russians have acknowledged the seriousness of the threat and are initiating plans to heighten security at the games – making the Sochi 2014 Olympics the most secure Olympic Games ever.

The State Department has issued a travel warning to Americans traveling to Sochi, and numerous other countries have cautioned their citizens of the potential inherent risk of travel in the midst of growing threats.

The United States has further instituted plans in case of the need for rapid evacuation or intervention, including the stationing of two US war ships in the Black Sea for the duration of the games.

Interestingly, this fear of a violent attack is not new to the past few months leading up to the Games.

Already in 2011, a New York Times article raised questions about the safety of the Sochi Olympics and the potential for terrorism.

Further, in January in 2012, the New York Times interviewed Robert Schaefer, the author of a book titled “The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Causasus: From Gazavat to Jihad.”

Schaefer predicted that attacks would increase in 2012 and at the beginning of 2013.

The rate of attacks at the end of 2013 and leading into the Olympics would indicate the motives of the Umarov’s Emirate group against the Olympics.

Schaefer said:

“If they want to create a spectacular terrorist attack, then attacks in the last half of 2013 will decrease, if they want to embarrass the Russians and disrupt the Olympics ahead of time (causing events to be cancelled or athletes to avoid the games because of security threats), then I think we’ll see an increase in attacks in the Sochi area.”

Even despite clear forewarnings and an undertone of fear, the global community appears confident enough in the security measures implemented by Russia to go on with the Games.

Should the Olympics be suspended to potentially save innocent lives?

Or would that be giving in to fear, and lending legitimacy to future threats and acts of terrorism?

In the end, the Olympics gives countries an opportunity to put their best face forward, exhibiting the prowess of their athletes and the unique beauty of their culture.

Let’s hope the Caucuses’ militants find a non-violent way to do the same.

For further reading:

Pictures of Sochi here and here.

“Why the Sochi Olympics may be a prime terror target” – PBS News

“Russia and Caucasus terrorists compete to make Sochi Olympics memorable” – the Guardian

“Winter Games, Caucasian Misery” – New York Times Op-ed

Feature photo courtesy Xevi V, Flickr