Security risks at the FIFA 2018 World Cup

Security risks at the FIFA 2018 World Cup

Russia will host the FIFA 2018 World Cup between 13 June and 16 July, and given the recent foiled plot in St Petersburg, security risks will be a top priority. Sporting events will take place in 11 cities and thousands of foreign visitors are expected to travel to Russia.

The aftermath of the elections: a low risk of unrest

On 6 December, President Vladimir Putin stated that he would run for re-election in the March 2018 presidential polls. While multiple candidates will oppose President Putin, the Russian opposition is currently fragmented and is not a major threat to the power structure. Despite the current social and economic hardships, a June 2017 Pew Research Center poll shows that close to 87 percent of Russians have confidence in Putin. The result was echoed in a September poll conducted by the Russian state-run VTSIOM in which 82 percent of the participants stated they support Putin. As such, it is almost certain Putin will remain president after the March elections.

In the aftermath of the vote, there is a realistic risk that opposition candidates and their supporters, especially those linked to Alexei Navalny’s banned campaign, will stage periodic protests. The frequency and intensity of these is likely to be relatively high in the weeks directly following the elections. However, there is a realistic possibility that civil society groups, human right organisations and members of the opposition will try to benefit from the media attention that Russia will receive during the world cup to organise localised demonstrations. Such events will almost certainly be tightly controlled by police and all unsanctioned protests face the risk of being dispersed by security forces. The risk of wider public unrest in Russia during the world cup remains extremely limited.

Hooliganism: risk of violent crime

The UEFA Euro 2016 championship demonstrated that ongoing rivalries between opposing rival hooligan groups continue to generate a substantial risk of violence during major football tournaments. Clashes between England and Russia supporters resulted in severe material damages and a heightened risk of exposure to violence for all those in the vicinity of the incidents. There is a realistic possibility that rival hooligan gangs may try to clash during the world cup in Russia. Local security forces will monitor threat groups and deny entry to suspects. However, the risk of clashes between violent supporters remains present.

The FIFA 2018 World Cup in Russia will also be exposed to an increased risk of sporadic racist violence. Russian ultra-nationalists and football supporters may specifically target foreign supporters or tourists. This could lead to verbal abuse or physical altercation. However, sporting venues, fan zones and commercial and touristic areas will be highly secured. Local authorities have a strong interest that such events do not occur in order not to tarnish the overall success of the event.

The Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus

Sunni extremist groups based in the North Caucasus, with ties to local criminal networks as well as to regional and international organisations have been conducting attacks against Russian administrative and security assets throughout the last two decades. Since 2014, insurgents groups have gradually shifted their allegiance from al-Qaeda to the Islamic State and hundreds of militants from the North Caucasus travelled to Syria and Iraq.

Russian security forces have prioritised anti-terrorist operations, especially in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria in a bid to weaken insurgent networks and limit their capacity to plot attacks. Ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Federal Security Services (FSB) in coordination with local police conducted large scale anti-terrorist operations that enabled security forces to thwart plots that targeted the sporting event.

Ahead of the 2018 World Cup, Russia security and intelligence forces will closely monitor the threat in the North Caucasus, launching preventive security operations aimed at detaining suspects, seizing weapons and disrupting plots. It is probable that active cells in the region will spur their supporters nationwide to carry out violent attacks. In the North Caucasus itself, violence will remain mainly geared toward periodic low-capacity attacks against security forces and administrative personnel. Sunni extremist insurgents are unlikely to be able to plot major operations such as the one that shocked Russia in the early 2000s.

The Sunni extremist threat in major cities

While anti-terrorist operations have led to relative decrease of the threat in the North Caucasus, Russia continues to face a heightened terrorist threat nationwide. The Islamic State has periodically called for attacks against the country due to its strategic involvement in the Syrian conflict. Throughout the second half of 2017, Islamic State propaganda outlets issued several calls to conduct attacks during the 2018 World Cup. For a militarily defeated Islamic State, any successful operation in Russia would be a major propaganda boost.

The militants’ wilingness to hit the country’s major cities was demonstrated by the April bombing in St Petersburg, when a Kyrgyzstani Islamic State-linked militant conducted a suicide IED attack in city’s subway. The explosion left at 15 dead and 64 injured. Further highlighting the threat posed by single-assailant radical Islamist attacks, on 19 August, a militant armed with a knife injured seven people at random before being shot dead by police in the Western Siberia town of Surgut.

russia world cup cities

2018 FIFA World Cup Cities. Source:

On 11 December, FSB Director Alexandre Bortnikov stated that security forces thwarted two plots that respectively targeted New Year festivities and the 2018 elections. This suggests that Sunni extremists with ties to the Islamic State have the intention to hit high-profile events in Russia. The FSB assesses that 2,900 Russian citizens and thousands of Central Asian nationals are likely to try to make their way back from the Middle East as the Islamic State has been defeated. This situation increases the risk of Sunni extremist attacks in the country. It is likely that ahead of the World Cup, militants with ties to transnational groups or inspired by the Islamic State propaganda will try to carry out attacks that may involve the usage of IEDs, knives, firearms or vehicles. Stadiums themselves are likely to have stringent measures in place, but gathering-places and transit points around venues in Moscow, St Petersburg, Rostov, and Volgograd will be at highest risk.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.