ATbar A Counter-Terrorism Decathalon - Defense Issues for the 2004 Athenian Olympics
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A Counter-Terrorism Decathalon - Defense Issues for the 2004 Athenian Olympics

15/09/2003 | by Elis, Niv  

The Olympic games is the world’s most-watched sporting event, with an estimated four billion viewers from over 160 countries. This is good news for sports fans, but unfortunately may be no less so for terrorists seeking a high-profile target. Terrorism is, by nature, a publicity seeking political tool; it puts the terrorist’s cause into the media spotlight, while intimidating a target population. Its effectiveness depends on publicity. Thus any event as widely-publicized as the Olympics is bound to be a very attractive target for terrorism. Indeed, the Olympic forum was exploited twice in the past for that very reason: the 1972 Olympic Munich Massacre, and the 1996 Olympic Pipe-bombing in Atlanta.

High stakes

These precedents have increased the stakes in securing the Olympic games in an interesting way. Whereas the Munich games of 1972 purposely toned down security in favor of a laid-back “carefree” atmosphere, squandering a measly $2 million budget on unarmed guards, the 2004 games in Athens have already set new records in the security department.[1] With a security budget upwards of $600 million, double that of the 2000 Sydney games, and a tripled security staff of 45,000 armed uniformed guards, the Athenian Olympics committee is making every effort to make the upcoming games unsusceptible to terror.

But the great investment in security has a catch: far more is at stake in the possibility of failure than just loss of life. When terror struck in the past, the public could (and did) blame organizers for not devoting enough time and money to security, allowing them to attribute the terrorists’ success to flaws in security. Thus, the perception that terrorism is preventable if one only invests in appropriate security remained intact. After all, goes the conventional wisdom, had the organizers of the Munich Olympics devoted as much effort to security as is common today, the games would have passed without incident.

In an event such as the Athenian Olympics, however, no such claim can be made: clearly the highest security measures are being taken! If terrorists can successfully perpetrate an attack despite maximal security efforts, they could deal a huge blow to public confidence, by implying that terrorism really can strike anywhere at anytime, regardless of any security measures. The stakes could hardly be higher. So beyond the theoretical and monetary investment in Olympic security, a further level of in-depth strategic planning is required.

Unfortunately, terror-prevention is not an easy task: the various attack possibilities are virtually endless, and each scenario must be accounted for in the preparations. Moreover, the Olympics is a gargantuan event, involving over 5.3 million ticketed spectators, 45,000 volunteers, 21,600 media workers, and 10,500 international athletes who will require housing at numerous hotels, in addition to the “Olympic Village.” All of these people will use public transportation, eat at restaurants, and reside in the host city for the 17-day duration of the Olympics.[2] As such, the list of Olympic targets expands to include all of the above. In other words, any attack carried out in Athens during the Olympics would for all practical purposes be considered an attack on the Olympics. If a bus were to be bombed in Athens four months after the games ended, it would just be a run-of-the-mill bus bombing. If an Athenian bus carrying tourists on their way to an Olympic sporting event were to be bombed, however, it would be a successful Olympic terrorist attack, with international victims, world-wide media coverage, and all the implied consequences for public confidence. It is clear to see that even if all athletic events are completely secure, Olympic security may still be incomplete.

Lessons from the past

A successful counter-terror strategy, as such, requires the careful scrutiny of every aspect of the event, starting with general trends seen in the past, and lessons from previous incidents. Looking to the past, the obvious dates to examine are 1972 and 1996, where terrorist attacks were actually perpetrated. Equally important, however, are those dates that Olympic terrorism was averted, such as in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

There is hardly an aspect of the utterly failed security approach to the 1972 Munich games from which a lesson cannot be learned. The first and most obvious lesson is to take security seriously. The Munich Olympics had hoped to make up for the militant authoritarianism of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which took place under Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich, and was imbued with racist, totalitarian sentiments. As such, the organizers of the ’72 Olympics placed a high priority on a carefree and serene environment. The majority of the guards were unarmed, actually resorting to distributing candy to disperse a group of Maoist protesters!

Candy, of course, proved fairly useless when a group of Palestinians from an organization called Black September “broke in” to the Olympic Village’s Israeli compound (they were in fact helped over the low fence by unwitting and drunken American athletes). The group shot and killed two upon entering, and then continued to hold nine more Israeli athletes hostage. They easily navigated the compound, having effortlessly scouted it out prior to the commencement of the games with no hassles from security personnel. Unbelievably, the police understood that a hostage situation was in progress only after a cleaning woman reporting hearing gunshots!

Because there was no backup plan in case of such an event, a clumsy team was put together to deal with the terrorists. Israeli offers of assistance were refused, despite their expertise with similar situations. Then, a rescue operation failed due to live TV coverage that informed the terrorists of the exact moves of the rescue squad. Finally an attempt to take out the terrorists in an ambush flopped when, apparently due to flaws in communications, a team of only five untrained snipers were detailed to kill the eight kidnappers. A drawn-out, bloody shootout resulted in the death of all hostages, and some of the terrorists.

The most tragic element of this story is not just the lack of preparedness, the ridiculous nature of the rescue attempts, or the sheer stupidity that led to the deaths of the hostages, but rather a deeper irony from the planning stages of the event. Out of 26 worst-case scenarios presented by Dr. Georg Sieber to the Olympic security committee prior to the games, one scenario matched the events of the massacre almost exactly. The security committee, however, rejected the scenarios as too spectacular and unfitting for the carefree environment of the games, and drafted no defense strategies or reaction plans, rendering themselves essentially useless from the beginning.

To sum up, the errors that led to the tragedy included: no real effort or money invested in security, complete disregard of possible attack scenarios, lack of armed guards, lack of a secure perimeter around the Olympic village, lack of communication, lack of cooperation with better prepared outside groups, and lack of intelligence (in both senses of the word).[2]

Since 1972, Olympic planners have taken security more seriously: from X-raying all luggage in Moscow to building an Olympic Village so secure it later became a prison in Lake Placid, to cracking down on local terrorist operatives, as in Sydney 2000.[3]
Another great lesson can be reaped from the Atlanta games in 1996, which was ironically hailed at the time as the largest, best funded peace-time security operation ever held in the United States. The monetary and strategic backing for security was pretty much a unilateral effort, funded mostly by corporate America and secured by various disjointed groups from the local, state, and federal level.[4] The hazy communications proved inadequate when a pipe bomb planted in an unsecured area of the Central Olympic Park exploded, killing one and wounding 111 half an hour after a bomb-threat was called in.[5] Also noteworthy is the fact that the bomber was not an Islamic fundamentalist, but in fact a white, right wing Christian militant. This fact should be a sharp reminder that terrorism is not employed only by anti-western Muslim groups, but by a whole slew of militant organizations desperate for attention. All such groups are potential threats, and must be taken into accounted.

Meeting the challenge

Having learned these lessons the hard way, the Athenian Olympic security committee has already drawn up over 800 worst-case scenarios and courses of reaction and put a seven-country international security committee (including Israel) together for the 2004 Olympics.[6] But in addition to these general guidelines, Athens must also take into account other situation-specific threats.

For one thing, Greece has until recently been home to “November 17,” among the most notorious terrorist groups in Europe. Named for the date of a 1973 student uprising against the U.S.-supported military government of the time, November 17 became one of the most elusive terror groups in the world. For over 25 years, the group concealed the identity of its members and taunted police time after time, carrying out some 23 assassinations (many using the same trademark .45 caliber pistol) as well as dozens of bombings.[7] Fortunately, international pressure after the assassination of a British diplomat (military attaché Brigadier Stephen Saunders), induced a greater effort on the part of Greek authorities. This, together with a bit of luck (a premature bomb explosion) led to the capture of some key members of the group.[8] While the Greeks claim that the group has been completely eradicated by the 18 arrests made in the six months following the explosion, the fact of the matter is that very little is known about the infrastructure of November 17. The U.S. government, among others, fears that remnants of the organization may still be armed and dangerous and plotting a revenge attack for summer 2004. This comes amid allegations that the organization still has ties to some elements of the government. [9]

A further difficulty unique to Athens is its location: a port city on an island, right next door to the Middle East. While a land-bound city can better monitor who arrives and leaves, a port-city’s borders are much more vulnerable to infiltration. Suspected terrorists may have had a hard time entering, say, Salt Lake City unnoticed, but can easily arrive in Athens by air, land, or sea.[10]

Limiting the use of airspace around a small island-country’s airport requires cooperation with neighboring countries (in this case, Turkey), making the task much more difficult than would be the case for domestic airspace. Athens’ airport in particular has a very poor track record when it comes to security (recall the case of the Entebbe hijackers, who boarded the airplane in Athens in 1976; the 1986 TWA flight bomb planted on an Athens flight; and a missile launched at an airplane in Athens in 1985 by a terrorist who had scaled the airport fence).

In addition, a series of “floating hotels” are planned: cruise ships ported in Athens to accommodate tourists. These “floating hotels” will be openly vulnerable to attacks by sea (think U.S.S. Cole).[11] As such, border control is a further priority in the upcoming Olympic games, requiring careful security along the Grecian coast.

Yet another unexplored vulnerability is inherent in the construction of the “Olympic Village”. Reportedly, very few security checks have been done on the workers who are presently building the village, which will house athletes, trainers, diplomats and officials.[12] An unsettling scenario involves a construction worker (or anyone who slips into the unguarded construction sight overnight) planting a bomb a few feet underground, building over it, happily awaiting the arrival of the diplomat or athletic team of their choice, and detonating the explosive by radio or cellular signal. From this scenario, we can conclude that to outwit terror, security must start far earlier than the event in question.

Finally, actual and specific terror threats made to the event must be taken into account. As of yet, Al Qaida has been ruled as the biggest threat to the 2004 Olympic games. The successful perpetration of sensational terror attacks over the past 10 years and the mass media attention given the organization in the wake of September 11th, it is certainly logical to think that Al Qaida is planning some devious scheme for the Olympics. Despite all security efforts, a terrorist group hard pressed for ways around the tight security could still find an easy target.

In fact, one unsettling possibility involves a low-level attack, which in a crowded area could have almost the same number of casualties as a more sophisticated attack. For example, a large scale stabbing operation, involving no more than 15 attackers, could cause mass hysteria, paranoia, and in certain circumstances could cause the kind of fatal stampede seen in previous instances of crowd panic. This type of attack, while considerably less spectacular than using airplanes as missiles or taking hostages, is surely effective as terrorism, and almost impossible to prevent. It could easily produce many more casualties and deaths than the ’72 tragedy, but cannot really be prepared for. After all, it is impossible and impractical to confiscate all knives from the city of Athens!

The only tool that can be used to prevent such an attack is intelligence—the one method that can stop an attack before it starts. Gathering specific intelligence information is a daunting task that even governments and defense agencies from around the world often fail to carry out successfully. Some have suggested an international counter-terror unit as an effective means of gaining such intelligence, but in the meantime such a unit exists only on paper. [13] One can only hope that existing intelligence infrastructures will manage to acquire information in time for the Olympics.

The only way to fight terrorists is to be more clever and creative than the terrorists, taking into account all possible scenarios and vulnerabilities. One creative solution might be use of “Pups for Peace” dogs – canines specially trained to detect the scent of explosives. [14] Such dogs set on patrol around the streets of Athens could be of great use in nipping a planned attack in the bud. Setting rigid sea and border controls could greatly reduce the chances of an attack, especially if they are set in place far in advance of the actual event. Using Israeli profiling methods can help build a watch list for known terror suspects. Deploying armed guards around the city of Athens for the duration of the games could prevent a peripheral but still harmful attack. Lastly, continuing the extensive anti-terror training exercises that Greek Special Forces have been carrying out (such as their recent simulation of both airport and cruise-ship hijackings) will prepare Greece to respond efficiently in the case of a perpetrated attack.[15] Security at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens will not be easy, but it will ultimately serve as a great lesson on whether preventative measures are sufficient to thwart terror. In 2004, the Olympics will be more than just competitions between athletes; it will be a showdown between Terrorism and Security. We can only hope to the prize goes to the right side: let the games begin!


1. Wolff, Alexander. “Munich 1972: When the Terror Began” Time Magazine on-line. 
2. “By the Numbers” July 30th, 2003. 
3. Bierbauer, Charles “Munich remembered: 1972 attack led to increased security” July 27th, 1996. 
4. Kifner, John, "Security Levels To Set a Record At the Olympics" New York Times, July 12, 1996, p.1.
5. Ibid.
6. “By the Numbers” July 30th, 2003.[opus cited]
7. “Revolutionary Organization November 17” July 30th, 2003. 
8. Cooley, John. “Olympian Effort”, August 11th, 2000. 
9. Ibid.
10. Shipley, Amy. “Greece Playing It Safe With Olympics" Jaunary 4, 2003. 
11. “By the Numbers” July 30th, 2003.[opus cited]
12. Ibid.
13. Herren, Eric “The Need for an International Counter-terrorism Unit” August 15, 1999. 
15. Chang, Andrew “Major Competition: Athens on High Alert as the 2004 Olympics Summer Games Approach” June 26, 2003