MOSCOW — The Russian agency taking a lead role in security for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi has a poor track record in Russia's anti-terrorism efforts, analysts familiar with the organization say.
The Federal Security Service — the successor to the Soviet-era KGB known by its Russian acronym FSB — has been unable to handle numerous small-scale Islamist terror cells that are increasingly common in the vast country.
"The last series of reforms of the Russian counterterrorism services took place in 2006 and were aimed at preventing large-scale militant attacks," says Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist who specializes in terrorism. "Precisely at the same time, the militants also decided to switch their tactics and begin operating as small groups, using single suicide bombers."
The results have been discouraging, experts say.
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland reported this week that attacks have spiked from 50 in 2003 to more than 250 in 2010. Russia experienced 150 attacks in 2012.
"The frequency of terrorist attacks in Russia has been steadily increasing over the past two decades," the report states.
The FSB is effectively a combination of intelligence and crime-fighting, akin to joining the United States' CIA and FBI. Its main area of responsibility is to counter terrorism, conduct surveillance against spies, fight organized crime and investigate serious crimes.
But it has also been accused of being a weapon of the government, employed to strike out at political opponents.
Yet one of the FBS' most challenging assignments has been taking the military lead in the fight against separatists in Chechnya, a largely Muslim republic in the south of Russia that is closer to the Middle East than to Moscow.
"When the Soviet Union collapsed, the different populations living in the Caucasian area wanted to have their own state, like Chechnya," says Ewald Boehlke, an expert on Russia and security policy at the Berthold Beiz Center at the German Council for Foreign Relations in Berlin. "Russia attacked with military force to stop nationalistic sentiments."
Russia's military pounded the republic's capital of Grozny in the late 1990s, prompting the rebels to switch to guerrilla tactics. The FSB took over the fight to neutralize the groups but was unable to prevent massive terror attacks against Russian targets. Among them was the 2002 takeover by dozens of Islamist terrorists of the Dubrovka Theater in Russia.
About 130 theatergoers were killed, as were all of the terrorists in a botched raid by FSB forces, who pumped too much of an undisclosed toxic substance into the ventilation system to make the attackers drowsy.
The FBS was stripped of its counterterrorism duties in the wake of the theater fiasco but they were restored and widened under President Vladimir Putin, himself a product of the KGB. Under Putin, the FSB took control of the Russia border patrol and an agency in charge of government surveillance that is the counterpart to the NSA in the United States.
Unlike the United States, where changes in counterterrorism efforts have helped prevent a major terror attack on its soil since the 9/11 attacks, Russia has suffered numerous such attacks since its reshuffling.
In 2004, Chechen terrorists took 1,100 hostages in a school in Beslan in southern Russia. Elite forces with the FSB helped storm the building, which the terrorists had mined with explosives. More than 500 people — including hundreds of children — died. Hundreds more were injured in the raid.
That incident prompted Putin to launch a brutal crackdown on Chechnya that largely subdued the rebel activity and was a major factor in the International Olympic Committee choosing Sochi for the Games in 2007. Sochi is in the North Caucasus region, where Chechnya is located.
But since then, a new crop of terrorists have sprung up in North Caucusus who are more concerned about religion than independence, say experts.
They're Muslim jihadists taking a page from al-Qaeda, says Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
"These guys talking about carrying out these acts aren't about national liberation," Kuchins says. "They're motivated by martyrdom."
The three women identified by Russian authorities as planning attacks during the Games fit the mold of the new Islamist terrorists. Called "black widows" because they were married to Muslim fighters killed in the wars against Russian authority in the region, the women are linked to the Caucasus Emirate, a terrorist group that draws members from throughout the region.
In July, the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov, equated the Games to "Satanic dances" taking place on the graves of Muslims killed fighting Russia.
"You are dealing with really ruthless people who are willing to go to whatever lengths that are needed to establish what they would call an Islamic caliphate in the Caucuses," says Mark Kramer, a Russia expert at Harvard University.
Russian officials recently confirmed that one of the three women — 22-year-old Ruzanna Ibragimova — was spotted in Sochi's airport earlier this week. Her late husband was reportedly a militant killed by police last year in the Russian Republic of Dagestan in the North Caucasus. Authorities have posted her photo around Sochi and warned hotels and other sites to keep a watch for her.
According to the National Consortium report, terrorists have struck nearly 1,900 times, killing 3,800 people, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Most of the attacks have happened in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, Russia republics that have a major presence of Islamists and are in the region of Sochi.
Twenty of the attacks were carried out by these "black widows." In the vast majority of cases the Russian government has not said it identified the attackers or arrested them, a frustrating show of complacency that leaves many Russians perplexed.
Soldatov says the FSB doesn't have the intelligence-gathering capabilities to identify and track down individuals suspected of terrorism. Kuchins agrees. He says Russian officials have great eavesdropping capacities, but such techniques are useless if the FSB can't identify who they are looking for.
"They can do that with much greater impunity than we can from a legal standpoint," he says. "To what extent they have the technology to back it up is a more problematic question."
Boehlke says the FSB's strategy up to this point has been to work with families within the Caucasus to identify militants to prevent attacks.
"They use the conflict between the families, a fundamental part of the structure of the Caucasian society, to have more influence on the sides in conflict and to understand whether they can be a menace or not," he says. "On this base they decide to intervene, pointing out who to kill or not."
But the terrorists have demonstrated they can evade Russian authorities.
In October, Russian-speaking Islamist terrorists took credit for a bomb in a bus in Russia's southern city of Volgograd, around 600 miles north of Sochi. In December, they staged another attack, setting off bombs in Volgograd's train station and promising a "surprise package" for Putin and others at the Olympic Games.
Putin has rolled out an unprecedented range of anti-terrorism measures in Sochi to quell fears: About 40,000 police officers will be on duty, 30,000 members of the armed forces will be deployed to the area, more than double the number of troops deployed at the 2012 London Olympics. Airborne drones will watch from above.
But some experts say the terrorists don't have to strike Sochi to create chaos there. Alexey Malashenko, co-chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Religion, Society and Security Program, says an attack in Moscow or elsewhere could do that and garner tremendous media attention.
Some Russians are worried about just that.
"Unfortunately, the Volgograd bombings show that we haven't been able to use this experience to build a much stronger arsenal of counterterrorism measures to protect our people," says Irina Zharkova, a university professor.
Others were more sympathetic to the FSB and Putin.
"I don't think this necessarily reflects Russia's failure to protect its people," says 22-year old Vikentiy Chevtaev, a film student. "Terror attacks happen everywhere in the world and no government can provide 100% protection against their threat in a modern world."
Contributing: John Dyer and Luigi Serenelli