Rio de Janeiro read­ies for worst as ter­ror threat hangs over Olympics


A half-mil­lion for­eign tourists, dozens of heads of state and the at­ten­tion of the world’s me­dia. If there were ever a headache for anti-ter­ror forces, it’s the Olympics.

In the af­ter­math of deadly at­tacks by the Is­lamic State group in France and else­where, Brazil, which has al­most no ex­pe­ri­ence com­bat­ting ter­ror­ism, is beef­ing up se­cu­rity for the Games that start in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 5. Plans in­clude dou­bling the num­ber of se­cu­rity forces on the streets, erect­ing more check­points and work­ing closer with for­eign in­tel­li­gence agen­cies than Brazil­ians did in the 2014 World Cup. But will it be enough? On Wednes­day, Brazil­ian fed­eral po­lice said they ar­rested a 28-yearold Brazil­ian-Le­banese man sus­pected of ties to ter­ror­ism.

The at­tor­ney for Chaer Kalaun told jour­nal­ists at Rio de Janeiro po­lice head­quar­ters that his client only posted mes­sages on so­cial me­dia and never in­tended to at­tack the Olympics that start Aug. 5. Po­lice didn’t de­scribe pos­si­ble charges.

The ar­rest on Wednes­day came a week af­ter po­lice ar­rested 12 peo­ple who al­legedly pledged al­le­giance to the Is­lamic State group. Au­thor­i­ties de­scribed them as “am­a­teurs” who used so­cial me­dia to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­ity of stag­ing at­tacks dur­ing the Olympics. All are be­ing held in a max­i­mum-se­cu­rity prison for at least 30 days.

Richard Ford, a re­tired FBI an­titer­ror ex­pert who lives in Brazil, said that while the gov­ern­ment has a ro­bust pro­gram to keep ath­letes and venues safe, he wor­ries that au­thor­i­ties aren’t tak­ing the threat of a lone-wolf or sui­cide at­tack se­ri­ously enough.

He cited com­ments by Jus­tice Min­is­ter Alexan­dre de Mo­raes, who sur­prised many last week by say­ing the chances of a ter­ror at­tack at the Games were “next to zero” and that the big­ger con­cern is street crime. Just a day later, the fed­eral po­lice over­seen by Mo­raes ar­rested 10 Brazil­ians al­legedly be­long­ing to an am­a­teur cell that had pro­fessed al­le­giance to ISIS over the In­ter­net.

“It’s very naive to think that the risks for ter­ror­ism are min­i­mal,” said Ford, who has worked on se­cu­rity at sev­eral Olympic Games. “In the last year, the risk of a ter­ror­ist at­tack has gone up ex­po­nen­tially every­where.”

Ter­ror at­tacks have been rare, if hor­ri­fy­ing at past Olympics. The most no­to­ri­ous was the 1972 mas­sacre of 11 Is­raeli ath­letes and a po­lice of­fi­cer by a radical Pales­tinian group in Mu­nich. A bomb planted by an anti-abor­tion pro­tester killed one and in­jured 111 at the 1996 Games in At­lanta.

“But Brazil has a lot of prob­lems that other coun­tries don’t have,” Ford said. “It’s sort of a per­fect storm for any­one want­ing to carry out an at­tack.”

South Amer­ica’s first-ever Games have been plagued by a long list of prob­lems, from the Zika epi­demic and se­vere wa­ter pol­lu­tion to slow ticket sales and ques­tions about the readi­ness of in­fras­truc­ture built for the Games.

Com­pound­ing the se­cu­rity con­cerns is the deep­est re­ces­sion in decades, which has forced the cash­strapped Rio state gov­ern­ment to slash spend­ing and de­lay pay­cheques, and a dis­tract­ing po­lit­i­cal cri­sis that led to the re­moval of Pres­i­dent Dilma Rouss­eff while she faces an im­peach­ment trial. To make up for the short­fall, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has had to step in with al­most $1 bil­lion in emer­gency fund­ing, much of which will be de­voted to se­cu­rity. Po­lice are also be­ing de­ployed from other states.

Many of Brazil’s se­cu­rity holes are an­cient and hard to re­solve. Long, por­ous borders it shares with 10 coun­tries are a ma­jor con­duit for arms and drug smug­glers. Ob­tain­ing an as­sault ri­fle, or ex­plo­sives, is easy from the crim­i­nal gangs that dom­i­nate Rio’s hill­side slums. Last year, thieves even man­aged to steal a truck car­ry­ing a ton of dy­na­mite.

Harder to ex­plain, though, is the late start on hir­ing se­cu­rity screen­ers. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by The Wall Street Jour­nal this month found that Brazil’s gov­ern­ment waited un­til July 1 to award the con­tract to re­cruit and de­ploy thou­sands of se­cu­rity guards at Olympic venues, rais­ing ques­tions about whether screen­ing pro­ce­dures were rig­or­ous for peo­ple who will be tasked with mon­i­tor­ing X-ray ma­chines and per­form­ing pat-downs. The se­cu­rity con­tract for the 2010 Win­ter Olympics in Vancouver was awarded 10 months in ad­vance.

“I never felt like this about ter­ror­ism be­fore, I only wor­ried about street crime,” said Fer­nanda Rocha, a phar­ma­cist in Rio. “I have no idea how to avoid ter­ror­ists if they come.”

To be sure, Brazil isn’t a new­comer to host­ing mega-events. Ev­ery year it wel­comes mil­lions of for­eign vis­i­tors dur­ing the week­long Car­ni­val cel­e­bra­tion, and the 2014 World Cup went off with no ma­jor in­ci­dents.


Brazil­ian Army soldiers take part in mil­i­tary ex­er­cise dur­ing pre­sen­ta­tion of the se­cu­rity forces for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.


Soldiers in­spect a truck with a search dog as they check for chemicals and ex­plo­sives along a road that en­ters Brasilia, Brazil, Thurs­day.

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