Hoax threats before Sochi Olympics play on security fears

U.S. Congressman, Rep. Michael McCaul, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, stands of a balcony of his hotel which overlooks the Olympic Park, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014.
AP Photo/Nataliya Vasilyeva

BUDAPEST -- At least five European countries' Olympic committees received letters in Russian on Wednesday making a "terrorist threat" before the Sochi Games, but Olympic chiefs said they posed no danger.

Despite the assurances, the letters to committees in Italy, Hungary, Germany, Slovenia and Slovakia briefly caused alarm and underlined nervousness over security at the $50-billion event on which Russian President Vladimir Putin's legacy may depend.

The USOC also confirmed it received a threat letter.

"We have received the email in question and we have forwarded the message to the appropriate authorities," said USOC CEO Scott Blackmun in a statement. "The safety and security of Team USA is our top priority. As is always the case, we are working with the U.S. Department of State, the local organizers and the relevant law enforcement agencies in an effort to ensure that our delegation and other Americans traveling to Sochi are safe."

Suicide bombers killed at least 34 people in a southern city last month, Islamist militants have threatened to attack the Winter Games and security forces are hunting a woman suspected of planning a suicide bombing and of being in Sochi already.

"I am very pleased to inform everyone that both the IOC and the Sochi organising committee ... declared after the analysis of the letter that this threat is not real," Zsigmond Nagy, director of international relations at the Hungarian Olympic Committee, told Reuters.

He said "this person has been sending all kinds of messages to many members of the Olympic family."

The letter, he said, threatened Hungarian nationals, competitors and officials, saying that "persons attending the Olympic Games might be blown up."

 Nagy also quoted IOC officials saying the letters had been sent by someone living outside Russia who had carried out such hoaxes before, but did not identify the person.

"This threat is not a real one and there is nothing to worry about," he said.

Officials in Italy, Germany, Slovakia and Slovenia said their national committees had also received threats and all had passed them to police.

The IOC, which is based in Switzerland, moved quickly to  ease concern after the first of the letters was received in Budapest. It said it took security very seriously and passed on any credible information to the relevant security services.

"However, in this case it seems like the email sent to the Hungarian Olympic Committee contains no threat and appears to be a random message from a member of the public," it said.

The IOC has said it is confident that the Games, opening in Sochi on the shores of the Black Sea on Feb. 7, will be safe, and Putin has put about 37,000 security personnel on combat alert in the Black Sea resort and increased security nationwide.

Russia has also been discussing its security operation with the United States, and Putin, who has played a big role in winning and organising the Games, spoke about security at Sochi with U.S. President Barack Obama by telephone on Tuesday.

Even so, Moscow has failed to dampen concern that it will be able to guarantee visitors' and competitors' safety, despite the most elaborate security preparations for an Olympics.

A militant leader, Doku Umarov, has called for insurgents fighting for an Islamist state in Russia's North Caucasus to attack Sochi — which lies on the western edge of the Caucasus mountains where the insurgency is focused.

Security concerns were heightened by the suicide bombings last month in Volgograd, a southern Russian city which serves as a gateway to the North Caucasus, and by a video in which the Islamist militant group which claimed responsibility for the attacks threatened more violence.

In Sochi, which plans to host hundreds of thousands of visitors during the Games, security forces are searching for a woman called Ruzanna Ibragimova, 23, who they suspect may be planning a suicide attack.

She may have arrived in the Olympic host city on Jan. 11-12, a letter seen by Reuters said.

"(She) may be used as a terrorist-suicide bomber by (insurgency) leaders to organise terrorist acts during preparations for and during the 2014 Winter Olympics," read the letter, asking police to look immediately into the matter.

The letter from Russia's Federal Security Services to local police said she was the widow of a slain Islamist militant and is believed to have recently left her home in Dagestan, in the turbulent, mainly Muslim North Caucasus.

Photographs of Ibragimova show a woman in a hijab, wearing a long dress.

Russia has gone on the offensive, trying to root out militants in the region and continuing a manhunt for suicide bombers who may already be inside the security ring, CBS News' Charlie D'Agata reported on "CBS This Morning."

The Russian security services have waged a take-no-prisoners assault in Dagestan, just a few hundred miles from Sochi. Russian officials say soldiers shot dead a suspected militant leader and a handful of other terror suspects just days ago.

Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN that the safety measures undertaken by the Russian government in Sochi are the "most impressive" in the history of the Games.

But McCaul, who visited the site last week, also voiced concern about the risk of a suicide bomber setting off an explosive device.

"It only takes one suicide bomber to get in," he said.