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Lone Actor Jihadists Pose Main Terror Threat to 2018 World Cup in Russia

01 May 2018 Chris Hawkins

Sunni Islamist militants, including Russian jihadists returning from conflict zones in the Middle East, pose the primary terrorism threat to the football 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia that begins in mid-June, according to a new report from Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC) .

"Although attack trends in Russia have diminished, the World Cup offers a significant aspirational target for would-be attackers," said Chris Hawkins, senior analyst, Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC) at IHS Markit.

"As the tournament approaches, unofficial Islamic State propaganda and social media channels, through the encrypted messaging app Telegram, are beginning to produce materials threatening the tournament, seeking to inspire lone- or self-directed individuals to conduct attacks," Hawkins said.

These propaganda releases have promoted tactics such as the use of vehicles and knives, which JTIC assessed to be the most likely means to be used in potential terror attacks.

Key findings in the report

  • The main security concern for the Russia World Cup is the terrorism threat driven by militancy in the North Caucasus region and Russian military engagement in Syria.
  • Militants are likely to aspire to attack stadiums and fans on match days.
  • Potentially successful attacks would probably be of a low-capability, involving vehicles, knives, or crude IEDs.
  • Lower probability scenarios include the use of weaponised drones, significant IEDs, or the use of CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) materials.
  • Russia's security services are likely to mitigate most potential acts of terrorism and have put in place a range of measures to attempt to alleviate the threats posed.

Threats from returning jihadists and North Caucasus-based groups

"Returning Russian jihadists pose a likely terrorism threat to security measures at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, motivated by their opposition to the military involvement of Russia and other World Cup participants in the Middle East, and towards Iran and Saudi Arabia," Hawkins said.

Large numbers of Russian nationals travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State and other Islamist militant groups. A proportion of returnees will be known to the security services and therefore are likely to be detained or placed under surveillance.

"However, there remains a moderate risk of clandestinely returned fighters conducting attacks during the World Cup," Hawkins said. "Due to their combat experience in Iraq and Syria, those returnees will probably be proficient in constructing and deploying viable improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and in military-standard weapon-handling.

"They are unlikely, however, to have easy access to sufficient weapons and military-grade explosives to enable them to carry out sophisticated paramilitary-style mass casualty attacks (such as the September 2004 attack on a school in Beslan in North Ossetia-Alania that killed 334 people)," Hawkins said.

"Additionally, a more locally-driven threat comes from Islamist militants in the North Caucasus, who have - since the break-up of the Soviet Union - fought against Russia's domination of their republics, driven by ethnic separatist, as well as jihadist, motivation," Hawkins said. "The main militant groups in Russia - the Islamic State's affiliate Wilayat al-Qawqaz and the Al-Qaeda-aligned Imarat Kavkaz - are confined to the North Caucasus region."

Security countermeasures in place

"Security services are already at a heightened posture following the March 18 presidential election, and will remain in a high state of readiness for President Vladimir Putin's inauguration in Moscow on May 7, and in other major cities for May 9 Victory Day commemorations," Hawkins said. "The experience gained during these periods will be used by security forces to inform their approach to World Cup security."

In Moscow, authorities implemented facial-recognition technology on 5,000 cameras in the city's CCTV network in September 2017 to cross-match footage with 'wanted' images from databases and the social media website VKontakte. Elsewhere, authorities in Volgograd have installed 131 additional CCTV cameras ahead of the tournament and other host cities are likely to follow suit. Such measures are likely to assist in the timely detection and arrest of wanted individuals before they commit an attack.

"Outside of the host cities, and particularly in Chechnya and Dagestan, counter-terrorism operations are likely to intensify in an attempt to mitigate threats originating from there," Hawkins said. "Similar pre-emptive security operations were conducted in the North Caucasus ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, and probably contributed to the absence of any attacks."

Russia will hold the 2018 FIFA Football World Cup from June 14 -July 15 in 11 host cities across the country.

Watch an interview with Chris Hawkins to find out more about the ongoing terrorism trends in Russia.

Get in touch here to learn more about JTIC and other solutions from Jane's.

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