Turin guards against terrorism, activists
A leader in Europe's crackdown on militants, Italy had a head start on Olympic security.
As if she did not have enough to worry about, the deputy president of the Turin Winter Olympics organizing committee went to see the Oscar-nominated movie "Munich" the other evening. It was, she acknowledges, a mistake to have reminded herself of the 1972 games, when Palestinian gunmen killed 11 Israeli athletes.
"I know we are in good hands," says Evelina Christillin. "But still, I couldn't help thinking...."
A terrorist attack is only one of the threats that Games organizers are bracing to meet as Friday's opening day approaches. More likely, they say, are attempts by Italian radicals to disrupt the Games in a bid to draw attention to their causes.
"The information we have does not point to a particular risk" of a terrorist threat, says Roberto Massucci, deputy head of the special security team the Italian government has assembled to guard the Games. "But there is also a threat from political groups seeking to publicize their issues, and it is possible that anarchists could infiltrate demonstrations" to cause violence, he adds.
About 15,000 policemen and soldiers, along with firemen trained to deal with nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks, have been drafted to Turin and Olympic venues in the nearby mountains. Three hundred snipers on skis will patrol the slopes, bomb-sniffing dogs will check spectators, and an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane lent by NATO will scan the skies for aerial danger.
"The Italians are tremendously professional in protecting and providing security for such events, and from everything I saw, everything is well prepared and ready for the Olympics," FBI director Robert Mueller said after a recent visit to Turin.
Though the expected $250 million security bill is less than a quarter of what Athens spent to protect the 2004 Summer Games, Italy is not starting from scratch, officials point out. The government's close relationship with Washington, its troops in Iraq, and a large immigrant Muslim population means security forces have been on high alert since 9/11.
"The Italian government is far more sophisticated and has a far better security infrastructure than the Greeks," says Robert Sikellis, managing director of Vance, a US security company that is advising US corporations sponsoring the Games.
The Italian police also have experience to draw on, such as the way they handled security for 2 million pilgrims and more than 150 world leaders at Pope John Paul II's funeral in Rome last April.
The Olympic challenge, however, is greater: Athletes will compete over 17 days at 16 venues spread over a wide area of difficult terrain, possibly beset by poor weather. The little public attention that has been paid so far to security, says Mr. Sikellis, suggests that "governments and corporate America have lulled themselves into a false sense of security."
The Italian authorities, however, have been among the most active in Europe in combating the threat of militant Islamic terrorism, arresting hundreds of suspects in recent years, expelling scores of them and jailing others. In a sweep last week, police detained 17 people in the northern Italian town of Varese believed to have connections with a Tunisian immigrant expelled last September for allegedly recruiting terrorists.
For the officials manning the National Olympic Information Center, the organization the Italian government set up to coordinate security for the Games, the focus is less on visible signs of security than on the seamless flow of information between the foreign and Italian agencies, says Mr. Massucci, its deputy chief.
Police officers from all the Group of 8 countries, European Union members, and especially high-risk nations such as Israel, will be at the Turin security headquarters, along with officers from Europol and Interpol, "to ensure that we get all the information we need," he says.
It will be the Italian police themselves, however, who will keep an eye on local political activists who have already used this year's Games to promote their causes. High on the authorities' list of priorities will be antiglobalization groups and opponents of a planned high-speed rail track that would run through the Alpine valley where the Olympics will be held.
Antiglobalization demonstrators have repeatedly disrupted the Olympic flame's journey round Italy in recent weeks - snatching it from a runner's hand on one occasion - to protest Coca Cola's commercial sponsorship of the flame, a symbol of peace.
Those demonstrators together with environmentalists hoping to block the construction of a tunnel and high-speed rail link to neighboring France, "will try to do something to show they are able to disturb the Olympic Games," predicts Massucci.
Whether or not anything actually happens to threaten the safety of athletes or spectators during the Games, the mere threat has been enough to complicate proceedings: so as to leave time for security checks, spectators are being advised to arrive a full three hours before an event begins.