MOSCOW (AFP) – Russia says it will take extraordinary measures to combat any terrorist threat when it hosts the World Cup next year, as its military campaign in Syria makes the country a prime target for jihadists.
A bombing on the metro in Saint Petersburg in April that left 15 people dead was among the recent high-profile terror attacks on Russian soil.
The fear of more attacks was heightened after seven people were stabbed in Siberia in August in an attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group, while the authorities have reported breaking up several jihadist cells across the country.
“There is a very real threat of an attack in Russia” during the World Cup, which runs from June 14 and July 15 2018, said Alexander Golts, an independent Russia expert specialising in security.
Russia has experienced a number terror attacks over the last 20 years and during two wars in Chechnya, but the threat has increased since Moscow’s military intervention in Syria in September 2015 to support President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, making it a priority IS target.
“The authorities say they have succeeded in destroying IS. But several thousand Russians have been taking part in jihadist conflicts and now they are beginning to return to Russia,” Golts said.
According to the Federal Security Service (FSB), about 2,900 Russian jihadists, most of them from the Muslim-majority Caucasus republics, have fought in Syria. Between 2,000 and 4,000 more fighters from Central Asia now live in Russia.
The world’s most high profile sporting event, along with the Olympic Games, makes an ideal terrorist target.
Every day, dozens of calls to commit attacks during the tournament from IS propaganda organs are published via social networks. Many of these involve threats against players.
But Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris, said these threats are put out “to attract attention”.
There is a risk of terror at “any global sporting event which attracts cameras and those with a desire to make an impact”.