Heavily armed soldiers conduct foot patrols in the international airport terminal, turning travelers’ heads. They stand guard outside luxury hotels. Naval warships glide the length of Copacabana beach around the clock.
Just a month ago, this all might have been reassuring.
But that was before a spate of unconventional “lone wolf” terror attacks in Europe. Now Rio de Janiero, the host city for the Summer Olympic Games that begin next Friday, is on edge.
“The biggest worry is these lone wolves . . . who by nature are not being followed,” said Paulo Velasco, a security expert in Rio de Janeiro for the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a business and politics think tank.
On July 21, Brazil detained almost a dozen young men around the country, who were alleged to be Islamic State sympathizers in the early stages of planning an attack. On Thursday, the lawyer for another man, Chaer Kalaoun, confirmed that he, too, had been detained as an Islamic State sympathizer.
The detentions did not help to calm nerves as the games approach.
“The emergence of a potential threat element branding itself or being announced as affiliated with I.S. changes the dynamic,” acknowledged John Friedlander, senior director of the security risk management group at Kroll Inc. in New York.
Kroll is among the many firms advising corporate and foreign clients on how to ensure the physical safety of their employees and guests during the games.
Brazil is known as having an unusually low risk for terrorism. The country has hosted high-profile events such as soccer’s 2014 World Cup and the visit of several popes without incident.
Friedlander said it’s still uncertain how serious a threat the people who’ve been detained were. Police have called them amateurs whose alleged plans were nowhere near fruition.
But even if they were not likely in a position to carry out an attack, the lone wolf phenomenon in Europe – the last four attacks required no difficult-to-obtain weapons, including the Nice, France, assault, where a a truck driver mowed down hundreds, killing 84 – has made even amateurs seem dangerous.
Leading up to the games, Brazil’s focus had been on a show of force and a tactical readiness to prevent any repeat of the 1972 Munich Olympics, where Palestinian terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage and eventually killed 11 of them in the darkest moment of Olympic history.
“Every single Olympics since then has always had an underlying threat to it. And that is no different with Rio,” said Mark Deane, CEO of ETS-Global Risk Management, whose leaders are former British and U.S. intelligence officials. “Does it face an increased risk of terrorism? Not necessarily. What it does have is a lack of experience in dealing with the terrorist risk.”
Before last week’s arrests, Brazil had been viewed as having an unusually low risk for domestic terrorism. The country has hosted high-profile events such as the 2014 World Cup in soccer and the visit of several popes without incident.
40 Heads of state expected to attend some portion of the games
The Brazilian men arrested in different parts of the country communicated through social media and seemed to share a fascination with sharia law, rules based on the Quran. They shared some commonalities with the European “lone wolves” in that their friends and family insisted in interviews with local media that none displayed signs of radicalization, and several had criminal records.
Brazil’s tactical training ahead of the games has included simulated rescue raids on subway cars, buildings and the like. The famously non-aligned nation has openly said it is working closely with intelligence agencies from the United States and Europe.
That’s because at least 40 heads of state are expected to attend some portion of the games. And likely one of the most visible teams in the eyes of terrorists is the U.S. team, comprised of 555 American athletes.
The layout of the Olympic village and its distance from Rio’s tourism hubs makes it a more difficult target and provides athletes greater protection. Yet the recent European attacks underscore the real vulnerability in Rio: Stopping a “lone wolf” attack is akin to finding a needle in a haystack.
After last week’s detentions in Brazil, the State Department commended the host nation.
“We have confidence in Brazilian authorities to take the steps – and we know that they are taking steps – to make these Olympics safe and secure,” spokesman John Kirby said in a July 21 briefing,
But Kirby noted the U.S. government will watch developments closely.
“It would be irresponsible not to continue to look at things very, very carefully, given that it is such a widely attended, public series of events,” he said. “And so we’re going to stay lashed up and close connected to authorities in Brazil going forward.”
Brazil also may be struggling with how and what to acknowledge about potential terrorists or threats.
The well regarded weekly news magazine Veja, in July 27 editions, described how intelligence and law enforcement officials were at odds over whether to disclose the detentions.
Brazil’s Federal Police, akin to the FBI, argued for making them public to show strength. But the Brazilian National Intelligence Agency, or ABIN, Brazil’s equivalent of the CIA, worried that the publicity could spur copycats with even more dastardly plans.
The detained men – nabbed in what Brazil called Operation Hashtag – allegedly sought to purchase military assault rifles smuggled in from neighboring Paraguay. Prosecutors called them “absolute amateurs.” Only one had ties to the southern Brazilian city of Foz de Iguazu, a city with a large population of Lebanese immigrants that has long been watched by global intelligence agencies as a smuggler’s cove for everything from cigarettes to weapons. It’s also a fundraising haven for Hamas and Hezbollah, two Middle East groups on the U.S. foreign terrorist list.
“It’s always been a concern to Western services and others, and I can’t imagine it’s any less of a concern given the games and their onset,” said Kroll’s Friedlander.
However, historically there have been few operational ties between those groups and the top two terror threats, the Islamic State and al Qaida.
“I’d be concerned a little bit about Hezbollah,” said Matthew Levitt, a former Treasury Department intelligence expert and now a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They do have a pretty significant presence in the region.”
Arriving athletes didn’t seem overly concerned about the terror threat.
“I’ll let the people whose job it is deal with that,” said Ryan Tyack, 25, an Australian arriving to compete in archery.
Eduarda Rodrigues owns a hair salon a few blocks from the massive volleyball stadium on Copacabana beach, and finds the show of force against would-be terrorist reassuring.
“I think with all this military and police it will be impossible” to commit a terrorist attack, said Rodrigues.
That optimism is not shared by Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.
“I am very worried. The country is very vulnerable. The country is not giving the attention to terror (threats) it deserves,” he said, noting Brazilians feel it is someone else’s problem. They think it is a problem of the U.S. or France.”
One complication for security personnel is that Brazil is waiving visas for visitors from many developed and developing nations during the Olympics. The visa waiver puts the pressure on countries of departure to ensure the true identity of passengers and whether they are thought to have terror ties, although Brazil is checking incoming visitors’ passports against terror watch lists.
Another unique security variable in Rio that did not exist in any other recent Olympic host country – except perhaps the United States – is the large presence of guns in Brazil, particularly in the poor slums called favelas.
“Knowing that most criminals have access to firearms in Brazil that therefore means by its very nature the access to firearms and ordinance is potentially easier than in any other countries,” said Deare of ETS-Global Risk Management. “You’d have to have the criminal networks in country to obtain them.”
Rio is awash in rumors that drug lords who control favelas might try to embarrass city and federal officials with a show of might. There is now a heavy police presence, apart from the military one, in tourist areas. A McClatchy reporter watched random searches of poorer Brazilians along Copacabana beach.
Terrorism may not be the biggest threat, however, say experts. Crime is a more likely problem – and one people can take steps to prevent.
“The biggest risk is . . . walking down the street with an expensive-looking watch or jewelry, or walking around with their iPhone or tablet,” said Deare. “They are likely to be targeted by opportunistic criminals. If they try to negotiate, it can turn hyper violent in an instant.”
He added, “Our advice to people is leave all your valuables at home (or in hotel room), dress like the locals and if you get stopped, just comply. If you try to hold onto stuff, that’s where your life is in danger.”