A picture taken on January 18, 2014, shows people walking past an information banner with the photos of police wanted suspected terrorists in a department store in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. The sign under the color photo (bottom R) reads: Ruzanna Ibragimova, born in 1991 in North Ossetia. (Photo by Nina Zotina/AFP/Getty Images)
By Roxanna Scott
WASHINGTON - Reports that Russian security officials are searching for three "black widows" dispatched to disrupt the Games concern U.S. experts on counterterrorism and Russian policy, who say more new potential threats likely will surface in the coming days.
Security concerns around the upcoming Sochi Olympics have been heightened to unprecedented levels, beyond the talk around the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City (the first after Sept. 11) and the 2004 Games in Athens, some experts say. They say concerns are valid considering Sochi's close proximity to the volatile Caucasus region.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has said Russia will do "whatever it takes" to secure the Games, which open Feb. 7.
Even so, CNN and NBC News have reported that authorities in Sochi are searching for Ruzanna "Salima" Ibragimova, the widow of a member of a militant group from the Caucasus region, and two other black widows, so called because their husbands died for their cause. There is concern Ibragimova made it past the Olympic security ring, where thousands of personnel are deployed to protect the Games.
More potential threats can be expected from terrorist groups "simply to enhance or increase the sense of insecurity around the Games," said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The non-profit held a press briefing on Sochi security Tuesday.
News of the search for Ibragimova came a day after a video was released by two purported suicide bombers who made threats against the Games and took responsibility for last month's bombings in Volgograd that killed 34 people.
One reason black widows would be deployed is because women terrorists are harder to detect, said Bill Rathburn, the director of security for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta who has worked on security issues for cities, foreign governments, organizing committees and sponsors at six Olympics.
Women can easily change their appearance with clothes and makeup. Plus in the cold, "everyone is wearing bulky clothing and it's easier to hide a suicide vest in that than in the summer," Rathburn said.
It's also possible that Ibragimova, who has been described as having a left arm that does not bend at the elbow and a four-inch scar on her cheek, is part of a hoax, Kuchins said. "How she got past the security does make one wonder again, is this really true or could this be a hoax?" he said.
Regardless, the fact that Ibragimova and others may have made it past tight security has had an impact on perception. "It doesn't give one great confidence," Kuchins said.
Threats to the Games have primarily come from the Caucasus Emirates, an Islamist militant group led by Doku Umarov, whose death was reported last week but also previously. (There has been no proof of his death.) Umarov and his operatives have demonstrated multiple modalities in their attacks, so the use of black widows would be in line with attacks the group has carried out in the past, said Juan Zarate, a senior adviser at the CSIS. Zarate also served as deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.
"They can use a variety of means to attack, not just a variety of targets to focus on," he said. "They've used suicide bombers to include the now famed black widows, they've used teams of operatives, they've used assault teams, they've vectored against airplanes and metros and trains, hospitals, security sites.
"They have a target-rich environment, and they've demonstrated the ability to organize different types of attacks based on the opportunities available to them."
The Sochi Games provide a unique opportunity to extremist groups because Putin is personally invested in the Games, traveling to Guatemala in 2007 to pitch to members of the International Olympic Committee for the right to host the event.
"The Caucasus Emirate is determined to embarrass President Putin during these Olympics to show that they are still very much a player in the North Caucasus," added Christopher Swift, a Georgetown University professor who studies militant groups in the region.
Sochi is the "holy grail" for an Islamic jihadist individual or group to go after, Kuchins said "In a way we have the ultimate showdown," he said. "Putin has a lot riding on it. This is a very juicy target. In American vernacular, it's high noon at the OK corral."
President Obama spoke with Putin on Tuesday about several issues, including security at the Sochi Olympics, the White House said. The Pentagon has said it has offered air and naval assets to the Russian government.
A strike on Sochi isn't the only way to harm the Games, experts agreed. "A series of Volgograd-caliber attacks would virtually terrorize all of Russia and spoil the Games," Kuchins said. "That would be a great tragedy."
Despite the talk about security concerns, several U.S. athletes say they aren't worried about their safety or their families.
"My family never hesitated about going," luger Erin Hamlin said Tuesday. "Even with things heating up a little in that general area, they're not concerned at all. They've now traveled quite a few places to watch me race. ... They're obviously well aware of the concerns they should have, but they're fine with it."
Contributing: Kelly Whiteside, Jeff Zillgitt