Shortly before the opening of any Olympic Games, people speculate as to which athletes will prevail. With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, however, much of the speculation was on whether terrorists would attack. Certainly, there was a valid terrorist threat at Sochi, just as there has been at every Olympic Games since Munich in 1972. However, the Russians deployed a massive security effort including their most elite counterterrorist forces to prevent any attacks. But we must always remember the standard wisdom: Security forces have to win every time, yet the terrorists have to win only once.
In the case of Sochi, Russian security forces faced terrorists who have carried out successful suicide bombings as well as large-scale hostage-taking. By now, we’ve learned how successful the FSB (Federal Security Service) and other agencies were when it came to protecting the athletes and visitors who came from all over the world.
Military and MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) Spetsnaz units, as well as other police and military units, were deployed to put a “ring of steel” around Sochi—reportedly totaling at least 40,000 troops and police. At the sharp end of the security effort were two elite FSB counterterrorist units and, possibly, another lesser-known unit.
Generally recognized as Russia’s premier counterterrorist unit is FSB Alpha, which carried out the hostage-rescue operations at the Nord-Ost theater and at the Beslan school. FSB Alpha is assisted by FSB Vympel, another counterterrorist unit that was present at Nord-Ost and Beslan. Both fall under the Special Service Center (SSC) of the FSB. Highlighting the threat from Islamic terrorist groups in the Caucasus, the SSC of the FSB has a regional branch in Dagestan. There are also satellite Alpha bases, including one that was established in Sochi some years ago.
“In the past, Alpha and Vympel had different missions. Alpha retained the domestic counterterrorism mission, while Vympel was trained for direct action outside of the Soviet Union…”
Alpha and Vympel operators go through rigorous selection and training. Virtually all hold an officer’s rank in the FSB. Among the areas covered in their training are the Russian legal system and laws, combat medicine, weapons skills, military tactics and operations, mountain warfare, airborne, and hostage rescue and assault tactics. Once they have passed selection and training, the operators return to their section for continued unit training. They will also be sent on other courses, including reconnaissance and surveillance, use of advanced technology, scuba, sniping, languages and more. Normally, a member of Alpha or Vympel is not considered fully trained until he has served for five years.
In the past, Alpha and Vympel had different missions. Alpha retained the domestic counterterrorism mission, while Vympel was trained for direct action outside of the Soviet Union. Vympel personnel were highly skilled in foreign languages and traveled extensively in foreign countries. In fact, both Alpha and Vympel had world-class athletes who saw many parts of the world while competing. A briefing paper I saw on Alpha and Vympel right at the end of the Soviet Union stated that some female Soviet Olympic athletes served with Alpha or Vympel. Vympel also operated as a “red cell” unit to test Soviet nuclear security. Later, in the new Russia, Vympel was assigned to track down missing nuclear materials and otherwise fight nuclear smuggling. More recently, Vympel has been deployed to Chechnya and Dagestan to track and eliminate terrorist leaders and groups. Vympel has received extensive training in urban combat, as has Alpha. However, Vympel also retains the responsibility for security for some sensitive Russian facilities as well. Although both units are trained to assault hijacked airliners, trains or buses, Vympel especially has received extensive training in bus assaults due to the large number of hijackings that have taken place by Chechen terrorists.
In the process, the Russians have developed some interesting techniques for bus assaults. Although they train using ladders, as do many other counterterrorist units, Vympel also trains using ramps that are rammed through the windows, followed by shooters running up them to take out the terrorists. They also have practiced the technique of having a covered truck pull next to the bus, at which point ramps are shoved across to allow operators to storm through the windows. I should mention that most Russian buses have large windows.
Staging & Prep
Based on my own experience working with Olympic and Goodwill Games security teams and on information from various sources, I can make some comments about what Alpha and possibly some elements of Vympel did in the months prior to the Olympics. Alpha was in Sochi for at least six months. While the Sochi Olympic complex was being built, it is likely that FSB technical specialists were compiling detailed videos of the various venues, dormitories and other facilities that could be pulled up on computers for rapid briefings if a hostage rescue operation was necessary. They would have also determined any common “dead” spots. It is quite likely that a mock hallway and dorm rooms were set up nearby for an assault team to practice should an assault be necessary. Snipers established distances from likely shooting positions and predetermined what they would have to dope in for a shot. Probably, in areas where an explosive entry might be necessary, the necessary charge was pre-calculated, and the position where the charge should be placed was subtly marked. Attachment points for rappel ropes were also likely to have been installed on roofs for each building in the entire complex. Also, they calculated their response times to various venues and practiced their approaches. Since so many buses were used to transport visitors to the venues, Vympel operators honed their already strong bus assault skills.
“Many analysts considered suicide bombers the greatest threat, and though video surveillance and alert security personnel would’ve helped spot suicide bombers, the potential danger remained at Olympic venues, hotels and restaurants around Sochi…”
A lot of Alpha and Vympel snipers werearmed with the 9x39mm VSS suppressed sniper rifle. The VSS is select-fire, though it is usually used on semi-auto, and fires a subsonic, 260-grain bullet at 920 fps. It’s typically lethal out to 300 to 400 meters. Use of the VSS would be highly desirable within the Olympic complex for multiple reasons, especially its lack of range. It would also be useful because it would create little noise to cause panic.
Some members of Alpha and Vympel probably performed the same mission as members of the British Special Reconnaissance Regiment did at the London Olympics by dressing as civilians and mingling with the athletes and visitors. I have received some information that at least some members of a little known unit designated Zaison were possibly deployed. Reportedly, these are former Spetsnaz who work for the SVR (Russian Foreign Intelligence Service) and are charged with external black ops. It is possible that some Zaison operatives were clandestinely inserted with orders to eliminate threats if encountered.
It is also possible that MVD Spetsnaz units that usually operate in Dagestan or Chechnya, such as the “Rus” or “Vityaz,” were tasked to hit known terrorist groups hard just before the Olympic Games to disrupt any “command and control” for planned attacks.
Many analysts considered suicide bombers the greatest threat, and though video surveillance and alert security personnel would’ve helped spot suicide bombers, the potential danger remained at Olympic venues, hotels and restaurants around Sochi. However, FSB counterterrorism units are well trained and well motivated. They, along with the military and MVD Spetsnaz units deployed, were able to keep Sochi safe from terrorism.