In a dank room lined with cobwebs and not much larger than an American closet, the strewn-about belongings of terror suspect Alisson Luan de Oliveira include Star Wars DVDs, fishing rods and a soccer ball.
There’s also the Richard J. Evans book “The Coming of the Third Reich,” “The Coming of the Third Reich,” a Portuguese DVD of the military thriller “Special Forces”, a Quran in Arabic and teach-yourself English and Spanish books.
Brazilian police and intelligence said the gangly teen detained on July 21, just weeks after turning 19, is part of a would-be terror group that was in the initial stages of a plan to shoot up the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Interviews with family and friends suggest not a man looking to join the pantheon of terrorists but an internet-obsessed kid using the anonymity of the online world to exude swag he lacked in daily life.
Somewhere in between competing narratives, however, are unnerving questions that remain unanswered.
The story of Alisson Luan de Oliveira is a cautionary one, involving the global reach of social media and the gray areas between interest in and support for the self-described Islamic State.
Oliveira’s mother is Catholic, his stepfather, evangelical Christian. Both said the son developed a curiosity about Islam online that led to his conversion about two years ago. He grew a beard, but shaved it a few months back.
Oliveira observed the month-long daytime fast known as Ramadan, prayed daily on a rug salvaged from the trash and cut by his stepdad, Sergio Oliveira.
“We cooked two meals, one for us and one for him at 5 p.m.,” said the elder Oliveira, who at one point removes a fake tooth while talking and hands it to his wife for safekeeping.
The family lives in a humble home in Saquarema, a few hours’ drive east of Rio de Janeiro. It’s a past-its-prime beach city whose tall waves once attracted the world’s top surfers.
The Oliveira home is nowhere near the pounding surf and waterside bars. It’s on the outskirts, unpainted behind a tiny juice shop. The yard is littered with discards from the family’s source of income, rummaging through garbage to find things that can be fixed, repurposed or sold to recyclers.
The portly 50-year-old man giggles with delight when showing off a unit pulled from a doll that makes the sound of a crying baby.
The conversation turns serious when talking about the stepson he has helped raise for the past 14 years. He insists the quiet boy who diligently cared for a handful of cats and who cried when occasionally yelled at, hardly has what it takes to be a terrorist.
“My son is not involved. I’m trying to think of some kind of defect he might have, he is like any other kid,” the stepfather said. “I think this is something that has to do with the internet, him wanting to appear a certain way for colleagues, this group he was in. Maybe there was a girl in the middle, something like that.”
Federal police came for the teen at 6 a.m. on July 21. His parents say the local police had questioned him unpleasantly about 15 days earlier. The feds were polite, said his mother, Lucineia, known around town for her work at a local school.
“I made him some bread with butter, he lowered his head and said, ‘I love you, Mom,’ ” she said.
And that’s the last she’s heard from him.
Alisson Oliveira and at least 10 others were arrested as part of a police sweep known as Operation Hashtag. They were all taken to a maximum security prison in the southern city of Curitiba. The family says a public defender was appointed but they have no name, no phone number for the person. They themselves don’t have a working landline phone. They often can’t pay for cooking fuel.
Police confiscated two cellphones belonging to Alisson Oliveira. They also confiscated the father’s cell phone. Two gutted PCs sit in the living room, left open after police removed the hard drives of each machine, which the elder Oliveira said he’d gotten through his trash collection.
“Do you think they are beating him?” the stepfather asks out of the blue.
At a skateboard park across town, Victor Hugo Andrade said he knew Alisson Oliveira as a quiet guy who had a temper.
“You could set him off,” he said.
Alisson Oliveira worked for a stretch on weekends at Supermercado Gomes Bacaxa, the town’s expansive grocery. His co-workers are shocked, describing him as quiet to a fault.
“He was a nice kid, and serious” said Romulo Gomes, owner of the grocery. “I don’t know if he had the courage to do this. From what I saw, I’d say no.”
Co-workers said Moises Mesut knew him best. He didn’t want to say much but says that Alisson Oliveira went to Turkey in a bid to get to Syria but was deported – a tale others of his friends tell.
“No. He’s not a terrorist,” Mesut said sharply.
Daverson Dutra worked alongside Oliveira and recalled a conversation while making a delivery together.
“He wanted to find his grandfather’s religion,” said Dutra, shaking his head in disbelief.
And here’s where the narrative of a kid making puffed-up Facebook posts gets blurrier.
Oliveira’s parents say there is no grandfather in Syria. His birth father, all grandparents and his stepfather’s family were all Brazil-born, with no Arab lineage to speak of. There’s no evidence he ever tried to go to Syria, or Turkey – a trip that would have been far beyond his means. His mother insists his Brazilian passport, which police confiscated, was blank, an indication he had not used it for international travel. Brazilian authorities have said almost nothing about his detention.
His parents acknowledge that he talked about traveling to Syria – to see the Holy Land, they said. The fact he had a passport, no small expense for a Brazilian of limited means, suggests an intention to travel.
But his stepfather insists Allison Oliveira’s interest in Islam was generated entirely by the internet in the world’s most populous Roman Catholic nation, where Muslims are a tiny fraction.
“The only thing he knows about the religion is from the internet,” said the stepfather, noting the only time the boy left the house for any period was a trip for a few days to a mosque in Sao Paulo.
But Allison Oliveira’s interest in Islam was serious. Portuguese-language books about Islam arrived with some frequency, sent from the mosque in Sao Paulo. The packages had always been opened before they arrived, the parents said, presumably by police watching the mosque. “Allah” is scribbled on the wall in scratchy Arabic.
His former history teacher, Fernandinho Itauna, who maintained an online friendship with him, remembers Alisson Oliveira like everyone else did _ shy and polite. But he also remembers a change in the boy’s online postings, especially after the January 2015 terror attack on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in response to its publishing of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
“He never did cast a critical eye to those who did it,” said Itauna.
Alisson Oliveira’s Facebook page has been taken down but photos from it circulate in the Brazilian press. One shows his face partially hidden by the Quran, presumably the same one photographed by McClatchy in his bedroom. The most recent one, his parents confirmed, shows him with a wagging raised finger as if proselytizing.
The only photos remaining in the humble home are one on the wall of Alisson as an infant, and an ID picture taken when he was a pimply 16-year-old with an earring.
Sergio Oliveira said he monitored his son’s Facebook page but admits he did not follow an Instagram account that Alisson favored. He also acknowledged that after the family went to bed, their son would move to the kitchen and have online chats using a phone the parents did not previously know he had.
The family said the son had saved about $240 earned through selling his belongings for his trip to Syria. But he then spent most of it staying alone when his parents went to visit family for two weeks.
The weekly news magazine Veja, in its July 20-26 editions, posted a screenshot from a June 18 social media posting by Oliveira in which he notes mockingly, “ABIN is so incompetent that it can only monitor public profiles on Facebook kkk.”
ABIN is Brazil’s equivalent of the CIA. Asked about the post, the father said several of his stepson’s social media pages were blocked, leading him to open new accounts. But why is not clear. ABIN did not respond to a request for comment.
Both parents complained the family has suffered repercussions from the high-profile detention of their son.
“They’re accusing my son of terrorism and really we are who is suffering terrorism,” said the stepfather. “We go to the market and they point at us, they call my wife the mother of the suicide bomber. For someone who is 50, raised in the countryside, who has suffered, talking about this hurts, you know, it hurts.”