Security concerns persist ahead of Rio 2016 Olympic Games

  • 29 Jul 2016 11:11

28/07/2016 written by senior analyst Lorena Gutierrez


On 21 July, authorities arrested 10 suspects accused of planning a terrorist attack during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, due to commence on 5 August. The detentions, which took place in different locations in Parana and Sao Paulo states, followed by two more detentions in Mato Grosso, have raised international concern over the heightened risk of a terrorist attack in Rio during the sporting event. However, although the threat from organised terrorist groups is high given the media attention that the Games attract and the large volume of people attending these events, recent police operations and high-profile incidents highlight that lone wolf attacks and crime remain the most relevant threats in Rio de Janeiro.

The investigations following the arrests revealed that the suspects were part of an amateur cell without evident links to an international terrorist organisation. All the detainees are recently radicalised Brazilian nationals who pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) on the internet, but never had direct contact with the group. The operation was launched following the interception of instant messaging services, as well as the attempted online purchase of an AK-47 rifle from an illegal weapons’ retailer from Paraguay. Although there are no details regarding the type of attack the cell was planning, police have concluded that the suspects’ plans were not organised or funded by any larger group, and there is no tangible evidence of IS’s presence in Brazil.

Most large-scale international sporting events are an attractive target for terrorism and the Rio Olympics are no exception. In November 2015, IS posted a tweet threatening Brazil and has since then distributed extremist indoctrination propaganda in Portuguese. Two days before the terrorist arrests, Brazil’s intelligence agency launched investigations into a suspected Brazilian Islamist group calling itself “Ansar al-Khilafah Brazil” (“Soldiers of the Caliphate Brazil”), although there is no evidence of this being an organised group. Pro al-Qaeda groups have also called on their followers to carry out inexpensive, lone wolf attacks against US, French, British and Israeli nationals in Brazil, benefiting from the access to illegal weapons in Rio's slums. In response to the expected threat, Brazilian authorities, in collaboration with international intelligence agencies, have set up a counter-terrorism centre in Rio, and 80,000 security personnel, including the marines, will be deployed to monitor the Games. This is expected to be a key risk mitigating factor against large-scale, organised attacks, but will not necessarily prevent attacks by single individuals, similar to the 14 July Nice attack. 

Although intelligence services remain on high alert, Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes insists criminality is a greater concern than terrorism. In fact, official data reveals a recent increase in the number of violent deaths and robberies in Rio de Janeiro, which has reached an average 428 killings per month so far in 2016. In the past weeks, police have intensified security operations in shantytowns, raising criticism by human rights groups regarding the use of excessive force by police. On 1 July, German TV broadcasters ZDF and ARD reported that a criminal gang stole their equipment using violence in Rio and, on 23 July, New Zealander jiu-jitsu athlete Jason Lee was a victim of express kidnapping in the same city. These cases are representative of the threats travellers and locals alike face in Rio despite a strong police presence.  

In the past months, a number of spectators and athletes have cancelled plans to attend the Olympics citing concerns over potential unrest linked to suspended president Dilma Rousseff's impeachment trial, as well as over the feared spread of the Zika virus, despite the World Health Organisation (WHO)'s reassurance that Zika does not pose a major threat during this season. Nevertheless, up to 500,000 people are still expected to travel to Rio, adding pressure on the security services to reassure the public of their capabilities to guarantee a safe operating environment throughout the Games.

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