WASHINGTON – Americans planning to attend the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, should be vigilant about their security due to potential terrorist threats, crime and uncertain medical care, the State Department advised Friday.
In a travel alert, the department said it was not aware of specific threats to U.S. interests related to the Games that begin next month. But it said large events like the Olympics are "an attractive target for terrorists" and Americans should be aware of their surroundings and take common-sense precautions to stay safe, notably on public transport.
Public transport in the general vicinity of Sochi has been targeted by terrorists as recently as late December, although the department stressed that those attacks took place in the city of Volgograd, some 600 miles from the Games venue.
A group designated by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, the Caucasus Emirate, has called for attacks on the Olympics, it said. Although the group's ability to strike the Games is not clear, the alert noted that the group has in the past been responsible for large-scale attacks on targets including a ski resort, a metro system, a high-speed rail, an airport and a theater.
The alert pointed out that Russia has vowed to take appropriate security measures to protect athletes, spectators and infrastructure. On Thursday in Washington, FBI Director James Comey said the Russians are devoting substantial resources and effort to securing the Olympics.
"We have been in regular communication -- including me personally -- with their security organizations to make sure we're coordinating well. I think that we are," Comey told reporters in Washington. "We've improved our information sharing on counterterrorism and it's important. Securing any Olympics is an enormous task. It's particularly challenging in Sochi because of its proximity to areas of unrest and sources of the terrorist threat. The Russian government understands the threat and is devoting the resources to address it."
Comey said the FBI would deploy "at least a couple dozen people in Moscow and maybe a smaller number but still a dozen or more people of different specialties" in Sochi.
In addition to the potential for terrorism, the State Department said Americans should consider buying private medical evacuation insurance if they attend the Olympics as medical facilities are "untested" in Sochi, which has never before hosted such a large event.
It also warned Americans to be wary of common criminal activity, which tends to rise at most large gatherings around the world.
The alert also advised lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans to review the State Department's LGBT travel information page if they plan to visit Sochi for the Games, noting that Russia has in place a law that bans the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors. It said authorities have been vague about defining "propaganda" and that the law applies to foreigners. A conviction on the charge could result in a fine, a jail term and deportation.