Why skiing is a counter-terrorism policy

Getting a lay of the land.
Getting a lay of the land.
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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As the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi begin, both winter sports and terrorism have been on people’s minds. Alpine skiing is usually about schussing through beautiful mountain scenery—a pristine and safe recreational experience. But, just as land reform has been viewed as a counterinsurgency policy, skiing can similarly be considered a counter-terrorism policy. Indeed, as confirmed by this 2012 article from the Washington Post, “Russia backs resorts to stem terrorism,” these Olympics are an explicit peace-building ploy.

Terrorism is the last thing visitors want to think about, but nerves have been rattled since Sochi is near the unstable Caucasus region. According to recent news reports, there are increasing worries of potential terrorist attacks and “Black Widow” suicide bombers emanating from neighboring Dagestan or Chechnya. Islamist rebels have vowed “maximum force” while the Russian government has bolstered its security plan. Beyond Russia, skiing and terrorism have also intersected in some of the main conflict hotspots of the past decade, including Pakistan, the Kashmir region in India, Afghanistan, and Nepal (where trekking was interrupted by the Maoist insurgency in the 2000s).

Here are three ways that skiing could serve to quell terrorism:

• Skiing brings development. The arrival of the ski industry can contribute increased employment and infrastructure in poor, rural mountainous areas. Take the Swat Valley in Pakistan: although the Taliban overran Swat in 2007, there is now hope that the reopening of the ski school will spur employment and tourism and prevent future threats.

• Skiing brings state presence. As skiing infrastructure is built and tourists come, there is also the potential for state presence to be strengthened, including the provision of security and government services. At the moment the Russian government is swarming Sochi with security forces.

• Skiing empowers and builds cohesion. According to the avalanche of new studies in the budding sports and peace-building literature, shared athletic activities can foster empowerment and cooperation, and can serve as a symbol of normality and freedom. At least these Afghan villagers seemed to be enjoying themselves while skiing.

There are several complications of this for Sochi, particularly the risk stemming from rough terrain. Hopefully, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Kozak was right when he said, “It is an illusion that there is more access to Sochi for terrorists. Sochi is isolated from the rest of the Caucasus—Chechnya and other such regions—by mountains that are not easily passable.”

Sochi’s relative isolation combined with Russian deployment of counter-terrorist resources may provide some reassurance. Yet the rough terrain fears are not totally unfounded, as four skiers were attacked and killed (plus a gondola destroyed) in 2011 by terrorists at Mt. Elbrus, inland from Sochi. Perhaps the geographic fortification might not be quite as strong as it has been made out to be. If the neighboring hotspot regions are as isolated from Sochi as Kozak implies, it is unlikely the Sochi games will have the positive development spillovers that planners had hoped for them.

Ultimately, skiing, like other forms of tourism, offers potential for developing areas with few other resources. But it must be accompanied by sufficient state capacity and transportation links (and sensitivity to local conditions).