Flames in the mountains

Islamist threats spread anxiety in Russia with the Winter Olympics just around the corner

The toothed peaks and rumbling glaciers of the Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia, along the border with Georgia and Azerbaijan, are sharply beautiful. The view from the top of Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest point, was brilliant in the white light, far above the clouds when I summited it with two friends last August. Yet the region seemed quiet when I was there, the green glens of summer vibrant with wildflowers and the angled sun crashing off the snow caps onto green-domed mosques. All the people we met were friendly and very hospitable. But this can be a dangerous area, with worries not simply about the crevasse fields and exposed ridges. The Caucasus area has long been synonymous with an Islamist fundamentalism manifested irregularly by bombings and other atrocities, and carried out by militants who thrive in the region’s isolated backroads and labyrinthine valleys. This point was brought home to us by the border warning signs on peaks such as Mount Cheget that straddle the Georgian frontier and the fact that our mountain guide was not just responsible for our safety on the mountain, but also off the hill, as there have been kidnappings of foreign climbers in the area before.

In three weeks’ time, the Black Sea coast and mountain resort of Sochi, way out on the western fringes of the Caucasus Mountains, will host the Winter Olympics. Worryingly, the massive showpiece event has been subjected to terror threats from the extremists who are striving to create a Muslim Caliphate across the mountainous region. The self-styled leader of the ‘Caucasus Emirate’, Doku Umarov, has reproached Moscow’s staging of the Olympics in Sochi, saying the site for ‘Olympic revelry was built on the bones of Muslim brothers killed by the Russians’. That message came in a video posted in July but there was another video released last week in which he said “for those of you who are left, there is an obligation to continue this jihad until death itself.”

But is Umarov even alive? Last Thursday 16, the Chechen regional leader, said that he believed Umarov had been killed. The Interfax news agency quoted Ramzan Kadyrov in an eerie statement: “We have long been 99%-certain that D. Umarov was liquidated during one of the operations. Now there is evidence that he is not among the living”. But there has been no official announcement of this apparent operation, and it would be a timely coup for the security forces if it were to be confirmed.

One militant who has been ‘liquidated’ recently is Eldar Magatov, the alleged leader of an insurgent group in Dagestan. He was killed in a shootout on Tuesday. But security authorities are now looking for four so-called ‘Black Widows’ (whose husbands have been killed by the security services in the ongoing Caucasus skirmishes) who are believed to be either in and around Sochi now, or planning an attack of some kind on the Olympic site, possibly to avenge their spouses’ deaths.

The terror threats are certainly fresh in the Russian and international spotlight following the recent attacks in Volgograd. 34 people died in twin suicide bombings on 29 and 30 December in the southern city. Vilayat Dagestan, one of the regional militant organisations, claimed responsibility for the attacks. Vladimir Putin is certainly determined to face down the terrorists and pull off a successful Games. In the aftermath of the Volgograd bombings, he vowed to “completely annihilate” the terrorists. The Russian president has wagered a lot on being able to see off the threats coming from the region. He has also spent a lot: with a massive $51bn budget for the Games.

Troubled by the price tag, a furore over a ban on gay propaganda and now threatened by terrorist attack, the Russian government has had a controversial lead-up to these Games. It has spent a lot trying to promote these Games, bringing development to the West Caucasus region but the issue of security is certain to ensure a lot of hand-wringing in Moscow as the days count down to the start of competition. The Winter Olympic torch has been lit and has been travelling far and wide: across the Russian mainland, to the International Space Station and to the bottom of the deepest lake on Earth, Baikal. By the time of the Opening Ceremony, it will also have been to the top of Mount Elbrus. Next week sees the flame taken right through the heartlands of the North Caucasus region, reaching the pinnacle of 5,642m on Elbrus on 1 February. It would be a blessing if the Olympic torch’s view from the top of that huge mountain in a disputed region will be as hopeful and calm as the vista we enjoyed five months ago.