top of page

Security During Beijing Olympics

(Paper prepared by me in connection with a discussion at Chengdu, China, from August 26 to 31,2007)

The main task of the security set-up of the Beijing Olympics of 2008 would be to prevent any accidental or deliberate disruptions of the Games. Accidental disruptions could be due to human negligence or unanticipated circumstances. Among examples of such likely accidental disruptions one could mention stampedes in the sports stadiums due to ineffective crowd management or control, fire due to short circuits,collapse of structures due to poor construction quality, mechanical and technical failures, contamination of food and water due to ineffective hygiene, inadequacy of arrangements for medical assistance in the form inadequate storage of blood of different groups etc.

2. Over the years, the organisers of the Olympic Games have developed a fairly fail-safe method of avoiding such accidental disruptions and controlling their impact if, despite all precautions, accidental disruptions do take place. During the Athens Olympics of 2004, a propane leak at a luxury hotel that was hosting hundreds of representatives from major Olympic sponsors necessitated the evacuation of a seaside hotel for several hours while firefighters emptied a tank containing the gas. Many of those staying at the hotel were Americans. Deaths and injuries due to poor crowd control have not been unusual during major football games in Europe.

3.The Olympic Games provide the most spectacular theatre in the world for human elements wanting to draw attention to themselves and to their cause. This leads to attempts to cause deliberate disruptions of the Games by political,social and human rights activists, terrorists and irrational individuals. There were instances, at the height of the Vietnam war, of the participating athletes themselves shouting anti-US slogans.

4. The Beijing Olympics would be the third one to be held since the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US by Al Qaeda, the so-called war against terrorism launched by the US in Afghanistan on October 11,2001 and the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.The earlier two were the Athens Olympics of 2004 and the Turin Winter Olympics of 2006.Global jihad as waged by Al Qaeda and other jihadi organisations associated with it in the International Islamic Front (IIF) formed by Osama bin Laden in 1998 has shown no signs of abating. On the contrary, it has spread from Afghanistan and Iraq to Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Algeria and even to Europe as seen from the Madrid blasts of March 2004 and the London blasts of July,2005. The IIF is a united front, under Al Qaeda’s leadership, of jihadi organisations from Pakistan,Egypt, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Neo Taliban,and the Abu Sayyaf of the Philippines. Some individual Uighur elements from the Xinjiang region of China and some jihadis from Chechnya in Russia have also been active in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as members of the IMU.

5. The five Pakistani organisations, which are members of the IIF, are the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ). The Jemmah Islamiya (JI) of South-East Asia, which was responsible for acts of jihadi terrorism in Bali and Jakarta, is also closely associated with Al Qaeda.

6. Since the beginning of last year, one has also been seeing the phenomenon of individual Muslims, not belonging to Al Qaeda or any other structured jihadi terrorist organisations, taking to suicide terrorism to give vent to their anger over the manner in which the so-called war against terrorism is being waged in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq under the US leadership. The ideological influence of the Neo Taliban and Al Qaeda has been spreading across the tribal areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border, thereby aggravating the threat posed by religious extremism.

7. There are certain defining characteristics of the jihadi terrorism of the kind practised by Al Qaeda and the organisations associated with it in the IIF. Firstly, their practice of mass casualty terrorism hitting at soft as well as hard targets. Secondly, their willingness to use any means to cause mass casualties, including the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) material. Thirdly, their insensitivity to the impact of their attacks on public opinion. Fourthly, their ability to innovate and improvise and adopt ever new methods of causing death and destruction. Fifthly, their ability to adapt discoveries of modern science and technology for use in acts of terrorism. Their increasing use of mobile telephones as a trigger for causing explosions is an example. Sixthly, their expertise of information technology and their use of the Internet for propaganda, communications, motivation, recruitment and training. Seventhly, the large number of experts in IT of different nationalities at their disposal. Eighthly, their look-out for opportunities to stage spectacular acts of terrorism viewed by their co-religionists and the rest of the world on the TV.

8. The US and Israel remain the principal targets of anger of Al Qaeda and other jihadi organisations associated with it. They have been desperate to stage another spectacular act of mass casualty terrorism against the US in order to show that their command and control and ability to strike at a time and place of their choosing remain unimpaired despite the so-called war against terrorism. Their other targets are countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Turkey, which they view as apostates because of their close co-operation with the US. Since 2003, they have also been critical of India. There have also been some signs of anger against China over Xinjiang.

9. This is the background against which next year’s Beijing Olympics will be held. Even in the unlikely event of the US-led international coalition prevailing over the terrorists in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region and in Iraq between now and next year’s Olympics, the likelihood of threats from global jihadi terrorism will remain high. The security arrangements have to cater to this possibility.

10. The prevailing international situation at the time of an Olympics always casts its shadow on the Games. The anti-US anger among large sections of people in different countries of the world over its role in Vietnam cast its shadow over the 1968 games in Mexico City. There were protests over the US role in Vietnam not only in the city, but also by some black athletes of the US team.Black American track medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists in the Black Power salute during the playing of the US National Anthem and were immediately suspended from the team by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

11. Anger against Israel over its occupation of Palestinian territory during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war had a brutal consequence in the Munich Olympics of 1972 when nine Israeli team members were killed during a terrorist strike by eight Arab terrorists belonging to the Black September group, who had slipped into the Olympic Village and took some Israeli teammates hostage. Before 1972, there had been instances of protests of a political nature in the form of demonstrations, shouting of slogans etc, but without violence. The Munich Olympics saw the first instance of an act of reprisal terrorism directed against one of the participating teams.

12. The shocking consequences of the Munich Olympics highlighted the lack of preparedness to be able to prevent and counter such incidents not only by the organisers of the Games, but also by the local Police and security authorities. The ease with which the terrorists had managed to infiltrate into the Games Village and take some Israeli team members hostage and the ineffective handling of the sequel by the local Police and security agencies led to the tragedy. It was alleged that two of the terrorists had managed to take up jobs inside the Village without a proper verification of their antecedents and that six others had managed to enter the village by climbing over the perimeter fencing without being detected by the security staff. The confusion and the lack of co-ordination among the local and the Games security agencies after the terrorists had entered the Village and taken the Israelis hostage made the tragedy inevitable.

13.Among the weak links in the security arrangements at Munich which reportedly came to notice were:

  1. Two of the terrorists had managed to get jobs inside the Games village and had obtained the security passes. They managed to establish in which apartments the Israeli team members were staying and to obtain duplicate keys to their place of stay.

  2. The remaining six terrorists entered the village by climbing over the perimeter fencing. Since they were wearing track suits and carrying the sports bags issued by the Games organisers, nobody stopped them and questioned them as to why they were entering the village by climbing over the fencing and not through the gates.

  3. When news spread that terrorists had entered the Games Village and taken some Israelis hostage, the media rushed there. The local TV stations were beaming live the goings-on in the vicinity of the Israeli apartments. The terrorists were able to see on the TV sets kept inside the apartments the deployment of the German commandos outside. The commandos were dressed as athletes, but they were carrying firearms. It did not occur to anyone to stop the press from reaching there and to stop all TV transmissions.

  4. The terrorists wanted to take the hostages to Cairo. They were taken by two helicopters to an airport with the promise that they would be provided with an aircraft to fly them out to Cairo. The local special forces were hoping to ambush the terrorists, kill them and rescue the hostages at the airport at the time of the transfer from the helicopters to the plane. The whole plan failed because the transfer took place at the dead of night, the sharp-shooters deployed at the airport to ambush the terrorists had allegedly no night vision equipment, their rifles had no telescopic sites and they had no means of communicating with each other while laying the ambush.The whole operation was consequently a disastrous failure. While some of the hostages were killed by the terrorists, some others died in the exchange of fire between the terrorists and the snipers of the security forces.

14. Six lessons stand out from the experience of the Munich tragedy. Firstly, the importance of a thorough verification of the antecedents of all those—paid employees, office-bearers and volunteers— employed in connection with the Games. Secondly, the importance of effective physical security, including perimeter security. Thirdly, an effective co-ordination mechanism to ensure co-ordination not only among all Olympics officials responsible for security, but also among all those in the local administration responsible for security and between officials of the Games and the local administration. Fourthly, the importance of a well-tested crisis management drill if despite all security measures, a crisis created by terrorism takes place. Fifthly, the proper training of the commandos of the security forces in dealing with the situation and the issue of all the equipment needed to them. Sixthly, the importance of effective media management to prevent the media from unwittingly hampering the operations of the security forces.

15. The post-1972 Olympic Games saw considerable strengthening of security for the Olympic Games to prevent a repeat of 1972. These revamped security measures were largely focussed on action to prevent similar acts of terrorism by well-organised and well-motivated terrorist groups and to be able to deal with them effectively if, despite all the security measures, any terrorist group succeeded in staging an act of terrorism. These revamped security measures were also focussed on the core of the Games-related activities such as the various stadia where the different Games would take place, the main Games Village where many of the athletes would be staying and the hotels in which the remaining participants, Games officials and the large number of visitors to watch the Games would be staying. The same focus was not there on the peripheral areas of the city, where the Games were held, which were away from the core of the Games-related activities.

16. The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta in the US saw a rogue act of terrorism totally different from what one had seen at Munich. An unidentified individual, who was subsequently identified as an irrational right-wing extremist (Eric Robert Rudoplph), planted a concealed improvised explosive device (IED)underneath a bench in a place called the Centennial Park away from the core of the Games-related activities, but the park was frequented at night by many visitors to Atlanta. It used to have at night cultural activities such as music concerts etc, which were attended by local residents as well as visitors to the city to watch the Games. A suspicious looking rucksack, which contained the IED, was noticed in time by a security guard of the Park, who immediately alerted a police officer present in the park. The police officer took prompt action to keep people away from the area, while waiting for a bomb disposal squad to arrive from the Central Control Room to defuse the IED. There was allegedly a delay in the arrival of the bomb disposal squad because neither the Control Room nor the driver of the vehicle in which the squad travelled knew where the Park was located. While all those associated with the security of the Games had excellent topographic knowledge of the location of the places associated with the Games-related activities, they did not have an equally good topographic awareness of the places outside the core. Details of the location of the park had been fed into the police computer, but the person, who had fed the data, had wrongly spelt the name of the park. As a result, the computer was not helpful. Due to this delay in the arrival of the bomb disposal squad, the IED could not be prevented from exploding.The explosion killed one person and injured 110 others. The casualties might have been more if the police officer in the park had not taken prompt action to keep people away while waiting for the bomb disposal squad. There was considerable delay in identifying and arresting the perpetrator, who managed to cause three more explosions of a minor nature in other parts of the town, without large casualties.

17. There were the following differences between the Munich incident and those at Atlanta. Firstly, the Munich incident was staged by a well-organised and well-motivated terrorist organisation. The Atlanta incidents were staged by an irrational individual with strong extremist political views. Secondly, the Munich incident was staged by foreign terrorists, who had infiltrated into Germany. The Atlanta incidents were staged by a local American citizen. Thirdly, the Munich incident targeted the nationals of a single country, namely, the Israelis. The Atlanta incidents targeted the civilians indiscriminately irrespective of their nationalities— Americans as well as foreigners. Fourthly, the perpetrators in Munich used hand-held weapons. They managed to smuggle them into the Games Village by climbing over the perimeter fencing and by avoiding the main entrance gate where a door-frame metal detector was installed.The lone terrorist at Atlanta used explosive devices in places such as a park where there were no anti-explosive checks. Fifthly,the Munich incident was staged in the core of the Games area, where there was supposed to have been maximum security. The Atlanta incidents were staged in a peripheral area where security could not have been that tight.

18. The most important lesson from the Atlanta incidents was the need for topographic awareness amongst the security personnel, particularly those posted in the Central Control Room. Computers are increasingly and efficiently performing the job of topographic guidance for bomb disposal squads and other emergency teams, but computers can fail either due to technical reasons or due to human mistakes while feeding topographic data. It is, therefore, important to have a back-up team of well-trained human elements in the Control Room with excellent topographic awareness of Beijing and equipped with the latest maps etc. When an emergency is reported from any part of Beijing, they should not be asking: “Is there such a place in Beijing? I had never heard of it.” That is what happened in Atlanta.

19. Another lesson from Atlanta was the importance of fail-safe means of communicating with the Control Room. It was reported that some of the Police officers deployed in the Atlanta park complained that they had difficulty in contacting the Control Room because its telephones were constantly busy.

20. The first use of an explosive device at Atlanta had another consequence, which causes tremendous strains to the security forces—namely, the large number of false alarms and hoax calls about the presence of explosives. It was reported that there were more than 100 telephone calls to the police after the Atlanta explosion regarding the presence of suspected explosives in different parts of the city. Some of these calls were from good-intentioned persons, who sincerely thought they had noticed a suspicious-looking package in a public place, but there were others, which were mischievous. Whether good-intentioned or mischievous, the Police had to verify each and every alert.

21. Since then, hoax calls and false alarms have become a regular feature of the Olympic Games.According to the Athens Police, Greek authorities dealt with more than 700 security scares during the Athens Games, including a bomb hoax before the opening ceremony.The Police chose not to evacuate the Olympic stadium, which was packed to capacity with more than 70,000 spectators, when they received a bomb threat before the opening ceremony. It was one of dozens of bomb threats during the games that turned out to be hoaxes. “We had 738 incidents, of which 82 cases — or 11% — involved bomb threats,” police spokesman Col. Lefteris Ikonomou said as quoted by the Associated Press.One problem involved two Russians who tried to use doctored accreditations to enter the Olympic athletes’ village. Ikonomou said authorities at first feared the two men were Chechen rebels until “it turned out that they were … relatives of members of the Russian team” simply seeking free room and board. Ikonomou said most of the bomb threats were aimed at venues such as the athletes’ village and the public transportation network. One included a threat to use ships to blow up a suspension bridge linking southern and central Greece. Security personnel also responded to 219 threats involving large gatherings of foreign officials and 134 security checks of suspicious individuals and packages.

22. Since the Munich Olympics, jihadi terrorist organisations have made tremendous advances in their modus operandi (MO). Among the worrisome advances made by them, the following may be mentioned:

  1. Use of commonly available materials, which would not evoke suspicion, for making IEDs. Since the New York World Trade Centre explosion of February,1993, they have been using nitrogenous fertilisers as an explosive material. In the London explosions of July,2005, the suicide bombers were reported to have fabricated peroxide based explosives by mixing cosmetic items normally used by women. In July,2006, the London Police discovered a plot to take liquids of normal use on board the aircraft and mix them in the aircraft for making an explosive material.In the failed explosions in London and Glasgow in July,2007, the terrorists unsuccessfully tried to use motor fuel and gas for causing an explosion. At the Glasgow airport, the material caused only a fire and not an explosion, but in a packed stadium even a sudden fire can cause panic and a stampede. In view of these developments, the anti-explosive checks in Beijing during the Olympics should be able to detect conventional as well as unconventional explosives and even ostensibly harmless material like cosmetic items, which could be converted into an explosive or inflammable material inside a toilet.

  2. Use of mobile phones as a remote-control device for triggering an explosion. The mobile phone has become a dangerous weapon in the hands of terrorists. In the 1990s, they were using it for communication purposes from moving vehicles in order to prevent the police from pinpointing their location. They are now increasingly using it for triggering an IED. In a crisis situation after a terrorist strike, the mobile phones also hamper the crisis management efforts of the police. It was reported that after the London explosions of July,2005, there were tens of thousands of mobile calls all over the city as the people frantically tried to contact their relatives in order to satisfy themselves that they were safe. This reportedly came in the way of the police communications. The Police, therefore, asked the mobile service companies to suspend their services for some time. One of the important decisions the security authorities at Beijing will have to take is how to prevent the terrorists from using mobile phones as an IED trigger and how to prevent the mobile communications of the people from hampering the communications of the security forces in a crisis situation. One does not know how this problem was handled at Athens and Turin. It is presumed the authorities responsible for security during the Beijing Olympics must have already consulted those responsible for security at Athens and Turins on how they handled the likely threats from mobile telephones.

  3. Use of car bombs as suicide vehicles as well as for remote-controlled explosions. One has been seeing this extensively in Iraq and to a limited extent in Afghanistan too.

  4. Use of individual suicide bombers.

  5. Use of chemical gas such as the Sarin gas used in Tokyo in 1995 to cause panic and confusion in public transportation systems.

  6. Use of aircraft to cause mass casualties on the ground as was seen in the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US.

23. Among the new MO, which the terrorists have been contemplating to use, but which they have not so far used are the use of weapons of mass destruction material and mass disruption techniques to disrupt the working of the computer networks. While for staging a terrorist strike, involving the use of hand-held weapons, explosives, WMD material and planes, the would-be perpetrators have to infiltrate into Beijing, they don’t have to do so for causing a mass disruption of the computer networks. These could be caused by net terrorists based anywhere in China and the rest of the world. The importance of emergency back-ups cannot be over-emphasised.

24. To mention the various MO already used in the past and the new MO that might be used in the future is not to cause nervousness, but to create an awareness of how the various threats could arise so that the security drill caters to these possibilities. The more one is prepared mentally, technically and professionally, the more one’s ability to prevent an act of terrorism. Lack of anticipation and preparation by the security forces is often an important cause of successful terrorist strikes. Many successful terrorist strikes could be attributed to lack of anticipation, preparation and preventive measures by the security forces.

25. Any comprehensive security plan in connection with the Beijing Olympics has to cater to the following possible terrorism-related scenarios:

  1. Scenario I: A terrorist strike in the core area of Beijing where the Games-related activities will be concentrated such as the stadia, the swimming pools, the Olympics Village, the hotels in which the participants, officials and visitors will be staying etc.

  2. Scenario II: A terrorist strike targeting the transportation system.

  3. Scenario III: A terrorist strike in the peripheral areas of Beijing where there may not be any-Games related official activities, but where the visitors from outside may go for tourism, cultural and entertainment purposes.

  4. Scenario IV: Diversionary terrorist strikes such as hijackings, kidnappings, assassination of very important persons, explosions in other parts of China—and particularly in Xinjiang.

  5. Scenario V: Diversionary terrorist strikes against Chinese nationals, interests, diplomatic missions, offices etc in other countries.

  6. Scenario VI:Virtual acts of terrorism through the Internet to cause mass disruptions.

26. While considerable focus would be on terrorism-related scenarios likely to arise from foreign terrorists, likely scenarios from domestic disgruntled elements should be given adequate attention. Among these one could mention the Uighur jihadi terrorists who have close links with Al Qaeda and the International Islamic Front (IIF), the Tibetan activists, the members of the Falun Gong and irrational Chinese individuals. On the basis of the evidence presently available, it is assessed that the Uighur terrorists have a capability for diversionary attacks in Xinjiang and against Chinese nationals, interests, diplomatic missions and offices in Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics. The Tibetans have motivated activists, who might indulge in political acts such as shouting slogans, demonstrations, self-immolation etc. The Falun Gong could also indulge in such political acts. In the case of irrational elements, one cannot rule out acts of copy-cat terrorism similar to what happened at Atlanta.

27. Disruptions by non-governmental organisations over issues such as human rights, economic policies, ill-effects of globalisation etc have become a frequent occurrence during international gatherings such as summit conferences etc. Their objective is to draw attention to their cause. While they may have difficulty in staging demonstrations etc in Beijing itself, they may find it easier to do so in Hong Kong coinciding with the Olympics. Hong Kong will need close attention before and during the Olympics.

28. An unknown and unpredictable quantity relating to the security arrangements is the possibility or danger of Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda organisations or self-motivated individual jihadis infiltrating t into the competing teams as participating members and using their participation for indulging in acts of terrorism or political disruption. A close networking with the security authorities of the Islamic countries would be called for to prevent this danger.

29. The security authorities should keep in their mind all the time from now onwards the following dos:

  1. Be Aware of the situation in your own country and outside, which could have an impact on the security arrangements.

  2. Be Mentally, Technically And Professionally prepared for different scenarios— not only for a repeat of past scenarios, but also for new scenarios, which had not happened in the past.

  3. Be Alert. Your alertness should have already started. You can’t wait till the Games to start being alert. Alertness always starts NOW—not tomorrow or the day after. If there are terrorists wanting to disrupt the Olympics, they must already be planning it now.

  4. Avoid Over-Confidence that nothing can go wrong. It is said that in a crisis there is always one more thing to do, which you had failed to do.In dealing with situations such as security during the Olympics, there could always be one more scenario, which you should have thought of, but which you have not.All of you must all the time keep asking yourself—Is There A Possible Scenario Which I Have Overlooked?

  5. Be in Touch—not only with various organisations responsible for security in your country, but also with the security organisations of the participating countries. Effective co-operation and co-ordination at the national and international levels is an important component of any effective security plan.

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai,. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail:

2 views0 comments


bottom of page