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.