Since the early days of the Islamic State (ISIS) there has been a preoccupation with the risk posed by foreign fighters returning home. With the attacks in Paris and Brussels, the world has seen how much damage these fighters can do. Recently, ISIS-linked media groups threatened the World Cup, which will be held in 2018 in Russia. Coupled with additional reporting that Russia is now the largest supplier of foreign fighters to ISIS, should the world expect attacks during World Cup next year?
The pro-ISIS Wafa Media Foundation issued a series of online threats against the 2018 World Cup. In graphic images, the group depicted the world’s most recognizable soccer starts–including Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Neymar–posed for execution or covered in blood. Text accompanying the images explicitly threatened the World Cup. Given the prominence of the event, the multi-national crowds in attendance, and the prominence of the host country in world affairs, it is not surprising that ISIS and many other terrorist organizations would find the 2018 World Cup a desirable target.
Around the same time as the ISIS threats, The Soufan Center, a private security research firm, released a report on the foreigners that fight for ISIS in the Iraq and Syria conflicts. In a shift, Russia overtook Saudi Arabia and Tunisia as the leading contributor of foreign fighters to ISIS. Additionally, the report estimated that around 400 foreign fighters returned to Russia, as well as up to 800 who were sent back after being stopped in Turkey.
The high-profile target and source of potential attackers make it appear that the World Cup could suffer some type of attack. The actual likelihood that we will witness any terrorist action is very low. The number of potential actors is most likely less than headline numbers. While over 1,000 perspective or active foreign fighters may have returned, those determined to reengage in violence is a small fraction of that amount. The Soufan Center report acknowledges that there are multiple categories of returnees, including those that returned after tiring of violence or becoming disillusioned with the ISIS cause.
Those actually sent back by ISIS to conduct attacks are few in number. In total, “lists recovered in Iraq in 2017 suggested that at that time, there were potentially 173 members of [ISIS] prepared to commit a suicide bombing; six of whom were Europeans. By then, their fate was unknown, as were their whereabouts.” Though we have seen the damage a small number of dedicated fighters can do, the volume of real threats that Russian security services need to track is not as high as the thousands that could be imagined. Of course, this does not discount the threat posed by potential terrorists who were domestically radicalized. These actors have long been present in Russia and will also seek to target a major event like the World Cup.
Russian security services also have a long history of effectively targeting and eliminating terrorist targets. Since the early 1990s with the onset of the wars in Chechnya, security services developed expertise in hunting insurgent networks and terrorist actors. Counterterrorism forces regularly report arrests and disruptions of ISIS-linked plots. Furthermore, security services in Russia have recent experience protecting high-profile events. Mostly notably, Russia hosted the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Despite threats from terrorist organizations, including ISIS, the event concluded without incident. The World Cup will be more logistically challenging due to its games in multiple cities, thereby increasing risk. However, it should not be beyond the capabilities of Russian law enforcement.
ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and multiple other terrorist organizations regularly threaten major, multi-national events. Yet, to date, we have not seen attacks on these occasions. The coordination and competence combined with the motivation needed to actually succeed in attacking a major event limits the number of potential threats. Furthermore, the prominence of these events draws significant law enforcement and intelligence service attention. While sporting events and public gatherings are often considered “soft targets” (locations that are often relatively unguarded and vulnerable) that invite terrorist attacks, the focus of security services significantly hardens the defenses. The World Cup in Russia will follow a similar trend, and we can also expect it to proceed in peace.