WASHINGTON – Tens of thousands of security and military personnel are patrolling Olympic venues, along with the streets, skies and seaports in London and Scotland. It’s a show to demonstrate “the Games” are safe.
But in the shadows, a large group of international security and intelligence foot soldiers are roaming the streets and back alleys with instructions — to stop a terror strike before it starts.
Experienced operatives are telling them to expect trouble in unexpected places.
“If a terrorist attack is likely at all, it would be one resulting from the displacement effect,” says London-based security analyst Charles Shoebridge, a former counterterrorism officer well-versed in how terrorists think.
“You’ve got unprecedented security levels inside and outside of London at the Olympic venues, and possible perpetrators might consider opportunities to attack elsewhere,” he says.
Soft targets and simple plots like the July 18 bus bombing in Bulgaria are what worry Stratfor Vice President of Intelligence Fred Burton.
“If I was hunkered down in London, right now, first and foremost, I’d be thinking, ‘Could this happen here?'” he says.
A part of the reason for concern in London is that British and Israeli authorities know that Hezbollah operatives have been tracking and plotting attacks against Israeli citizens around the world for more than a year. A key development in Cyprus, 10 days before the Bulgaria bombing, solidified their belief that Iran was behind the Bulgarian attack.
Even before the thunderous blast that rocked the Black Sea city of Burgas, intelligence operatives from Israel, Britain and the U.S. knew a sinister plot was under way. They didn’t know where it would occur, but they knew who was behind it.
However, before they could shake the missing information loose, it happened.
At 5:30 p.m. local time, a powerful explosion driven by more than 6 pounds of TNT tore through a bus loaded with Israeli tourists. Six people were killed and more than 30 wounded at the airport near the Bulgarian capitol of Sofia.
The day after the attack, Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told WTOP they knew Iran was behind the attack because of information obtained “from interrogations that have taken place with people who were captured in unsuccessful attacks.”
“We received exactly the same modus operandi, the same operational patterns, exactly the same footprint in this attack in Bulgaria” that were found in other failed plots, Regev said, without elaborating on which unsuccessful attacks he was referencing.
“We’ve seen it in India, in Thailand, in Georgia, in Azerbaijan, in Kenya and Cyprus and now in Bulgaria,” he says.
On July 23, Cypriot authorities revealed they had arrested a 24-year-old Swede July 7 on suspicion of charges related to terrorism. Foreign intelligence sources say his movements, planning and even his origin were almost identical to the bomber in Bulgaria.
Iran’s UN Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee told a UN Security Council this week that “we have never and will not engage in such a despicable attempt on innocent people.”
He lashed out at the Israelis for accusing Iran of the Bulgaria attack.
“It’s amazing that just a few minutes after the terrorist attack, Israeli officials announced that Iran was behind it,” Khazaee says.
The stakes at the London Olympics are enormous.
“This is probably the single biggest security operation in the United Kingdom since the second World War,” says Shoebridge.
The assembly of thousands of athletes from 200 countries on an island slightly bigger than half of California is a challenge for both would-be terrorists and the small army protecting the Olympics against an attack.
The overarching anxiety in London stems from the security blunder by international security company G4S, which grossly underestimated the number of security guards it could vet, hire and train to protect the Games.
“You’re going to have everybody in London thinking about whether the security forces are going to be able to do the job,” Burton says.
The promise Netanyahu made “to bring the perpetrators of this terrible act of terrorism (Bulgarian bombing) to justice” also looms over the Olympics.
Burton is troubled about the possible timing and scale of Israel’s response.
“When do we reach that tripwire that causes the Israeli government to take some sort of more forceful actions?” he says.
And he wonders what sort of blowback the Games would suffer if it happens before the Olympics end.
Another scenario making the rounds at security roll calls: What happens if Iran or its proxies try to strike the Games anyway?
“I would be very surprised if Iran were to mount an overt or even covert attack on the Olympics either by proxies or unidentified individuals that could be linked back to them. I think it would be catastrophic for them,” says Shoebridge.
But one fact is not lost on the legions of security and intelligence personnel on duty in London. Iran and its Revolutionary Guard, which is the command and control link between the government and Hezbollah, has a penchant for attacking on anniversaries.
The fiery disaster in Bulgaria took place 18 years to the day of another tragedy that unfolded in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 1994, 85 mostly Jewish citizens were killed in a sophisticated attack on a community center.
Hezbollah, acting on behalf of Iran, was blamed in that attack.
The 2012 Summer Olympic Games, officially known as the Games of the XXX Olympiad, is the anniversary of another tragic event for Israel. Forty years ago, 11 Israeli athletes were killed by the Palestinian group Black September.
Predicting what Iran will do is difficult because of its status as an international pariah and the fact that it is largely closed off to much of the West.
“Pretty good” is how Director of National Intelligence James Clapper describes the U.S. window inside Iran.
“It’s never as good as we’d like it. Intelligence is almost never perfect,” Clapper says. “You’re almost always dealing with a certain amount of uncertainty, and particularly when you’re dealing with a denied area, which is what Iran is.”