For an especially congenial guy, Mark Galeotti sure knows a lot about bad, bad people.
The clinical professor of global affairs at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies is one of the world’s leading experts on Russia’s organized crime syndicates, as well as the complex terrorist threats always bubbling in the country’s North Caucasus region.
This has made him one of the most sought-after voices on the fear—in the wake of recent Volgograd bombings and the promise of a terror “surprise”—shadowing the Winter Games underway in Sochi. During these Olympics, he’s doing security analysis for Al Jazeera America and writing columns for Moscow News, the International Security Network, and Russia! magazine. He gave a dozen interviews in a single day last week.
Galeotti is based in Moscow, where he’s researching a new book and finishing another, Russia’s Chechen Wars, 1994-2009 (Osprey), due out later this year. NYU Stories recently Skyped with him about the many issues underlying Russia’s big moment on the world stage.
Where exactly are these Sochi threats coming from? Who are these terrorists?
There is no nice, neat organization. It’s not like the IRA or the Basque separatists with a chain of command, people with whom you could potentially negotiate. This is why it’s such a problematic challenge. The North Caucasus has been a Russian imperial territory for almost 200 years now. First it was the Chechens who rose up against the Russians, but a whole variety of other peoples in [the region] are now agitating. They’re everyone from nationalists who just want their country to be free to an emerging younger generation of true jihadists who want to see the creation of an Islamic Caliphate. There are lots of local groups, and often they bubble up out of nowhere. It’s almost impossible to predict because it’s just what people think in the here and now. And so the Russians have to try and cover all the bases.
Would all of this go away if the Russians just got out of the North Caucasus?
There are a lot of people in Russia who say, “Why do we care about them?” These are areas with massive levels of unemployment and what business there is, what governance there is, is all subsidized from Moscow. There’s a whole movement saying “Don’t feed the Caucuses,” “Don’t spend our money on them.” It is, more than anything else, political. I say this as a Brit, knowing how Britain losing its empire was a painful, traumatic experience. Britain still hasn’t worked around understanding that it’s just a small island rather than a great world-striding colossus. For Putin, who built his whole political persona on this macho assertion of Russian national interests, there’s no way he can say, “Actually, these guys, they’re just a bit too obstinate. Lets just back away.” At the moment, everyone knows that if you mess with Moscow then misery comes your way. And that is a very effective way of keeping everyone [in Russia] in line.
Is the mood there one of fear or one of excitement for these Games?
Bear in mind that the TV is either state controlled or very heavily state influenced. Looking at Western TV coverage before Sochi, it was all about the terrorist threat, the boycott because of LGBT issues, facilities that aren’t finished, and hotels that are half empty. But watch Russian television and it’s about shiny new facilities that have been opened on time, world leaders flying in to attend the ceremonies, and hockey athletes and their gold medal hopes. It’s a relentlessly upbeat message that’s been put out by the state media. But when it comes down to it, they have spent more than $51 billion on these games in a country that has some real problems. They could have spent that on roads, on infrastructure in general, on creating a postal system that works.
Bill Rathburn, who directed security at the 1996 games in Atlanta, recently said: “I would be afraid to use public transportation in Sochi during the games.” Would you?
No. Inside the Sochi security zone is as secure as secure can be in this day and age. The problem is the insurgents really have to launch some sort of attack. If they don’t, if the Sochi games are completed and there hasn’t been at least an attempted attack somewhere, they’ll lose credibility. And remember, if you’re a guerilla movement, credibility is one of the major ways in which you attract new recruits. It will be a great blow to the leadership, it’ll be a blow to morale, and they’re much less likely to be seen as serious contenders in the global jihadi [movement].
Which Olympic location is in the most danger?
If they can’t do it in Sochi, they’re probably going to try and hit the perimeter. It wouldn’t in any way threaten athletes or spectators, but it would be an attack on Sochi in terms of the world media response. The point is, with all the journalists looking at southern Russia, all you need to do is have an attack; globalization in media has changed the opportunities for terrorists. The Volgograd bombings were tragedies for the people involved, but in the grand scheme of things, they were not a real risk for Russia. But they have managed to completely change the narrative. In that respect the terrorists won: They turned this into coverage about “are the games safe,” “are these the terrorism Olympics?” Basically, if they can’t get Sochi, they just gotta get somewhere.
Is this danger specific to these Olympics, or are we just experiencing a new normal?
I think having [these Games near the] North Caucasus is a big factor, but in this day and age, whether it’s Islamic extremists, anti-federalists, or libertarians, there are always terrorist movements that sort of creep up. Ultra-rightists, ultra-leftists, you name it. I think this is the new normal in two ways. One is that any major event is vulnerable, particularly when many of these threats are global. Obviously, the Russians are mainly worried about people coming from the North Caucasus. But conceivably you could have a member of the Chechen diaspora who lives in Turkey—a second-generation Turk who feels passionately about the Chechen cause—who comes as a spectator but nonetheless commits an attack. These threats are going to be the norm for any major public event—but the answer is precisely that normalization, the getting used to the fact that threats exist. The most dangerous thing we generally do is drive a car, but 19 times out of 20 we don’t think of that—except for when someone has just cut us off. We just get used to the fact that there is a risk in day-to-day life. This is something Britain got used to during the period of the IRA—that sort of cultural resilience. You do everything you can to be secure, but when it comes down to it, you cannot be protected.
What scares you the most about the future of terrorism?
For me, the new model of terrorism is: What could be done by four smart guys—one who has a degree in chemistry—$10,000, and a garage? What could they come up with? For some it might be using ammonium nitrate fertilizer to build a bomb; for others it might be a cyber-attack; for others it might be working out how you can access anthrax spores, or increasingly drones and even little airplanes. How can they be weaponized? My concern is that technology is moving fast. I love my toys and everything else, but we have to realize that we’re basically in an imagination race. Bad people will think of abusing these new opportunities. The 3-D printer that can make a gun—the technology that can get abused. And don’t even get me started on nanotechnology.