Terrorists at the Olympics?
Dec 15, 2007

One comment currently being heard in British Columbia is that the upcoming 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics will be “a sporting event, not a security event.”

The reality is, however, that the Olympics have long since ceased to be only about sports. They are, in every sense of the term, a political event. The opening and closing parades themselves are full of potent political symbols, especially state flags. Athletes who want to participate must belong to a team. With only the rarest of exceptions, every team must be from a country that is part of the Westphalian based system of states.

Politicians have ensured that politics remain a key feature of the games. The 1936 Berlin Games were stage-managed by Hitler to substantiate his own political beliefs. State sponsored boycotts of the games (1980 and 1984) put a focus on ­politics rather than sports. Currently, an entire host of organizations (government and NGOs alike) are attempting to use the 2008 Beijing Games to advance their own political agendas, at the expense of the sporting value of the event.

While the Olympics are clearly a political event, it is often overlooked that ­terrorist attacks are also political events. The purpose of terrorist attacks is to pressure governments into making policy changes or to draw attention to political problems. In the past, ethno-nationalist ­terrorist groups sought minimal casualties with maximum publicity. While it used to be said that ­“terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead,” this view has now changed – especially with terrorist groups that are political-religious in their nature. Targets now are often chosen for their mass casualty potential. Soft targets, such as public gatherings and public transportation systems are often preferred (London, Madrid, Bali 1 and 2).

The Olympics are full of state symbols of power and prestige, and extremist groups seek to attack those symbols. Combined with that, the world’s media are pre-positioned to ensure that anything, especially a violent event, is immediately beamed worldwide.

As such, the Olympics and extremist groups who are willing to use violence are made for each other.

A Violent History
Vancouver itself and the province of British Columbia have a history of politicized violence and terrorism. In 1982 and 1983, the Squamish Five carried out a series of bombings against BC Hydro and the Red Hot Video Stores. The same group also travelled to Toronto to bomb Litton Industries.

The most horrendous Vancouver-based terrorist event is the still unsolved bombing of the Air India flights in 1985 which resulted in 331 deaths. This event was the most serious terrorist attack in Canada and it is still the greatest single loss of life from a terrorist attack against a single aircraft anywhere in the world.

Prior to that event, was the beating of a Member of Parliament who had warned of the threat of political violence. That attack resulted in a series of other violent acts, including the 1998 murder of a journalist who reported on the events and the threats against the lives of witnesses who, at that time, would not testify. As of 2005, the International Sikh Youth Federation, implicated in the bombing and proscribed as a terrorist group, was still operating in the open without any apparent fear of action from the government. Most shockingly, politicians of various parties and levels of government still openly support fund-raising for terrorist groups.

Vancouver's Yaletown harbour area.

In another BC-based terrorist episode in 1999, Ahmed Ressam assembled a bomb that was to be exploded at the Los Angeles Airport. Fortunately for all concerned, Ressam was stopped by a US border official who was suspicious of his actions and identification. Canadians should pause and remember that if Ressam had been successful, Canada’s sovereignty would have been severely compromised. The American government would have been looking for both vengeance and for greater control of what happened on the other side of the “undefended” border.

Past Olympics
The Olympics have suffered from violence and terrorism in the past. The 1968 Mexico City Olympics were preceded by the massacre of some 200 to 300 students and activists who wanted to exploit the attention being focused on Mexico by the Olympics. The most politically egregious attack was the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Palestinian terrorists attacked the Israeli team. There was a bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 2000 Sydney Games were reportedly the target of a terrorist attack that was not carried to fruition. The 2004 Athens Olympics were called into question by a series of bombs associated to game sites 100 days before the games were due to begin. The high politics of the Games, combined with large numbers of international media, is a magnet for politicized violence.

2010 Vancouver Olympics
The Vancouver Olympics poses a series of security problems. Canada, an open, pluralistic society, is hosting a high profile political event at a time when the international security environment is complex and uncertain. Canada’s role on the international stage has changed significantly since the end of the Cold War in 1989.

Many Canadians still naively cling to the past ­narrative of a global reputation as the “peaceful kingdom.”  Unfortunately, even our well-intentioned role in Bosnia (1992-1995) has left us a target for jihadists. In their narrative, foreign forces that were in Bosnia were there to assist in the oppression of Muslims. Whatever the truth of the situation, the jihadists have spun their own version about the conflict in Bosnia (and Kosovo) – and Canadians were at the forefront of both of those missions.

Additionally, the mission in Afghanistan, that started in 2001, has raised Canada’s international profile. Whatever the reality, this mission has drawn the attention of a variety of jihadists who have used it for their own propaganda needs. Along with many other countries, Canada is shown as a typical satanic country in propaganda and recruiting videos.

Fair or not, Canada has developed an international persona (in jihadist eyes) based on our roles in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan as part of a “crusader alliance” which spends it time oppressing Muslims. As such, we have been specifically noted as a target, at least twice, by the “core” of Al Qaeda as well as being identified as a target by the Taliban. Other groups, such as Hezbollah, have decidedly mixed views on Canada. While Hezbollah enjoys relative impunity to do its fund-raising and organizational work here in Canada, being proscribed as a terrorist group by Canada has angered some within it ranks.

Canada’s Own Message
No policy equals no message. This problem lies at the root of Canada’s counter terrorism policy, as it does with most other Western states. What is the strategic aim of the Canadian government with respect to terrorism? Is the government attempting to eradicate it? Suppress it? These would be unlikely goals, given that terrorism has been around for millennia and is essentially political in nature. Or is the strategic aim a more pragmatic one of denying terrorists what they seek – which is to disrupt our way of life?

Whatever the case, there is no clear policy or national level objective coming from Ottawa. As such, there is no coherent information message to counter that of the various terrorist groups who are putting messages out against Canada.

Confrontation & Refutation
Al Qaeda and its inspired followers in over 90 countries have been able to dominate the strategic battle space through their aggressive and effective use of ideology and propaganda. While there have been setbacks for Al Qaeda and its associated groups at the tactical and operational levels, its ability to maintain and regenerate itself at the strategic level is clear. Ideological and propaganda operations continue to increase, primarily originating from the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan. This effort, conducted primarily by the As-Sahab media arm of Al Qaeda, dominates the Internet and reaches into the individual computers of potential recruits around the world.

Al Qaeda and its followers continue to have the momentum at the strategic level with only limited efforts being made to challenge the organization on its own ­ideological “turf.” This momentum can be challenged through a process of confrontation and refutation – unfortunately, it is not being done. Al Qaeda and its followers dominate the key information battle space of the Internet and only weak signs suggest that any pushback is occurring.

Potential Threats
Terrorist threats to the Olympics come from two main sources. The first is the threat from homegrown jihadists cells. The second is from “single issue” groups such as environmental or social activist extremists. A third, and rather distant threat, would come from the “core” of Al Qaeda itself.

As of late 2007, Al Qaeda’s core capability is still rebuilding itself in Pakistan and would be hard pressed to attack such a distant target. Whether the “core” poses a major threat to the 2010 Vancouver Games or not, will hinge on the outcome of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the next two years.

The threat from homegrown jihadist cells is the most difficult. These self-forming Al Qaeda-inspired cells lack a hierarchical structure and are generally self-financing. The time period from their formation to operational capability can be measured in weeks or months. Their lack of structure and short-term duration as a group means that intelligence on them is unlikely to be developed in a timely manner. The most probable means of detecting them will be indicators that are developed and observed at the local level through observation or community engagement.

The other main threat is that of extremists from “single issue” groups that have a focus on environmental or social issues. BC has seen a wide range of activities in the past from these sorts of groups – these include everything from tree spiking to dynamite bombings. Unfortunately, the Olympic Games tend to generate controversy issues that involve the environment, housing and other social issues.

The Greatest Security Problem?
The single greatest threat may not come from any one terrorist group. It may come from the Canadian sense of complacency and our ability to ignore a continuous series of faint signals that indicate upcoming problems. Yes, the Olympics are a sporting event, but increasingly, the Games have become a major political event with very serious security implications.

Tom Quiggin is a court-qualified expert in jihadist terrorism, a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore and a regular contributor to FrontLine Security.
© FrontLine Security 2007