Olympic security: Brazil adjusts to new threats with help from global partners

Brazil issued 12 arrest warrants Thursday for people they believe have had contact with Islamic State. It's getting advice on how to prevent attacks from countries with more experience in dealing with terrorism.

Sergio Moraes/Reuters
A Brazilian Navy soldier attends a street patrolling exercise on Aterro highway ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The town of Chapecó in Brazil’s sleepy southern state of Santa Catarina is one that rarely registers on the national radar. It’s best known as home to some of the country's largest meat-packing plants, including halal-certified operations that export to Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

But in June, an alarming announcement by federal agents brought Chapecó into the spotlight. A Lebanese immigrant living there was accused of making a 2013 visit to parts of Syria controlled by the self-proclaimed Islamic-State (IS), an accusation his father has publicly denied. Police say he took shooting classes and published a video online praising the attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In the end, a judge ruled he must wear an ankle-tracking device – through the end of the Summer Olympics in August.

It was a curious move in a country that has generous immigration laws and porous borders, a rich history of Arab migration, and zero experience with attacks by Islamic extremists. And it underscores the relatively new terrain Brazil is facing ahead of the Games here Aug. 5 – 22.

The judge wrote in her authorization of the surveillance that although the tracking device was “uncommon,” the situation calls for actions that contemplate the “unimaginable size of the risk” of a potential attack. 

Brazil has grabbed one negative headline after another in the lead-​up to the Games. Its political and economic crises, combined with deep-seated domestic security concerns and a high murder rate, have given many observers pause when it comes to confidence in Brazil’s preparedness to host an expected 500,000 visitors.

The Olympic Games have suffered diverse threats over the years, with Islamist extremism in the minority among varied attacks spurred by causes like anti-abortion extremism or anarchists. 

Compared to other hosts, Brazil's security concerns have long been exclusively domestic. In a sign of caution, authorities have denied the credentials needed to access Olympic venues to more than 11,000 people – both local and foreign – including four they say have links to terror. And less than two weeks before the Games kick off, Brazil issued 12 arrest warrants across nine states Thursday for people they believe have been in contact with IS to plan an attack. 

Yet, even amid questions of whether Brazil will face international threats of terror as host of the first Summer Olympics in South America, nations from around the globe have stepped up to offer support and training opportunities to prepare it for this extraordinary situation.

Some ​55 ​governments – including odd bedfellows like Russia, Yemen, Turkmenistan, and the United States – will gather surveillance intelligence in command centers in Rio and Brasília. Brazilian law enforcement has sent teams of observers to foreign sporting events like the Tour de France and Baku European Games to learn about large-scale event security firsthand. The United States has been a top trainer for Brazilian law enforcement in the period leading up to the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics. In one training, the US antiterrorism assistance office taught Brazilian police case studies on the 1999 Columbine school shooting and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Brazilian security officials say the cooperation will not only benefit athletes and fans here for the Olympics this summer, but could leave Brazil’s forces with a legacy of new professional skills that can be applied more broadly at home, ranging from detection of fake documents to improved airport security. Successfully hosting the sporting event will give the country – better known for its deeply troubled domestic security record, and underpaid law enforcement suffering poor working conditions – a positive international bump. For a nation that has long sought a more prominent role on the international stage, and touted “South-South” relations, Brazil, the trainee, could potentially become the trainer, sharing its new skills with other Southern Hemisphere nations, or other host nations, down the line. 

"Wherever there has been an important event, we've had Brazilian police collecting information," Andrei Rodrigues, a federal agent and the head of Brazil's special government agency dedicated to mega-event security, said in an interview with Brazil's Zero Hora. Rodrigues has been invited to create a database of best practices in partnership with Japan, which will host the 2020 summer games, and has said observers from Russia and Qatar, the sites of the two upcoming World Cups, will come to Brazil for the August Games. "Police from several countries are working with us," Mr. Rodrigues added in a separate interview. "Mutual cooperation between countries is vital."

'On our terms'

Security cooperation and information-sharing among countries became the norm for the Olympics following the 1972 Munich Games, when Palestinian militants killed 11 Israelis. But Brazil’s seemingly enthusiastic attitude toward the presence of foreign forces and sharing surveillance networks is not always the norm, observers say.

Take the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Russia’s approach was one of “we will make our own decisions” and outside governments can come in “on our terms,” says Vida Bajc, a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia who compiled a recent book that studies the history of Olympic Game security, “Surveilling and Securing the Olympics.” Any eagerness for cooperation comes down to “how strongly the host country feels about its own capacity,” Ms. Bajc says.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York also changed how Olympic host cities view and prepare for security threats, says Jon Coaffee, a professor at the University of Warwick, who has written extensively about Olympic security. The security budget in Athens in 2004 was five times the previous Sydney Games, according to Mr. Coaffee's research. Athens’s $1.5 billion security tab shook out to nearly $150,000 per athlete. Twenty hours after London was selected as the 2012 host, its transportation network was struck by four bombs, resulting in a security bill for the Games that quadrupled from its initial proposal.

"Cooperation, if you like, among security networks is increasingly common," Coaffee says of the foreign governments training Brazilian forces. And it “is increasingly also a business."

Rodrigues, Brazil’s mega-event security chief, said that the majority of Olympic Games security will be provided by private companies. Bilingual bodyguards are reportedly going for $2,500 a day, while an armored car can cost up to $7,000, hired by VIPs, nervous visitors, or foreign athlete delegations. 

In the aftermath of the July 14 terror attack in Nice, Brazil said it would audit its security procedures and add more checkpoints, barriers, and traffic restrictions across the city.

"It's important for the Brazilian people to understand that they are going to exchange a little bit of comfort for a lot of security," said Gen. Sérgio Etchegoyen, chief minister of Brazil's institutional security cabinet.

But a report in the Wall Street Journal this week punctured some of that confidence, reporting that the $5.3 million contract to provide thousands of screeners to operate X-ray machines and pat down visitors was only awarded July 1. That gives the winning subcontractor, which doesn't have a track record in working large-scale events, only a few weeks to perform background checks on its new hires.

An 'imported' worldview on terrorism

Rio residents are no strangers to the need to be alert about security. Locals run red lights at night – it's legal – in an effort to avoid potential carjackers, for example. Terrorism talk in the lead-up to the Games, however, in the midst of an already intensely crime-conscious culture, has led to both citizen alarm and exasperation over what some see as exaggerated threats.

That sentiment came to a head in July when Brazil's spy agency, ABIN, launched a social media campaign with memes instructing Brazilians to report suspicious behavior. Facebook and twitter-loving Brazilians gleefully shared a meme, seen by many as amateur and paranoid, that showed a faceless man wearing a hooded jacket, reading: "Suspicious people act in strange ways and show great nervousness."

"We run more risks of going to the street and being killed by an armed robber than a terrorist attack," one popular commentator wrote on ABIN's Facebook page. "They do this just for English people to see," he added. "English" is a popular phrase that dates back to colonial-era Brazil's efforts to hide its slave trade from abolitionist England. It implies that an action – like raising awareness about potential terror attacks – may be seen as the proper thing to do, but in reality has little meaning or action behind it.

While Brazilians find the notion of a terror attack at home foreign​, the visitors Rio will soon host are no strangers to such vulnerabilities. One-third of the countries in the opening ceremonies participate in the coalition fighting IS, for example. In an alarming and curious move, IS opened a Portuguese-language social media channel called Nashir Português this year, according to a terror monitoring group.

The arrest of the Lebanese migrant in Chapecó followed a similar incident in which Brazilian federal police said they were investigating a French-Algerian physics professor based in Brazil; the academic voluntarily left the country. The scientist had worked here since 2013 and said authorities knew of his prison sentence for terror charges in France when he was granted a visa years prior. In July, the wife of a foreigner told police her husband planned to bomb the Brasília airport before traveling to Pakistan, though authorities gave no indication that they found any supporting evidence.

“We kind of imported that worldview,” political scientist Mauricio Santoro says, referring to the increased alarm over jihadi threats. “We discuss the Middle East because it's a nice market for Brazilian products,” not because it presents us with a security challenge, Mr. Santoro adds.

Arab names in Brazil often connote status; Brazil’s interim President Michel Temer ​is the son of Arab migrants, part of a wave that gave Brazil the largest Lebanese diaspora in the world.

And although Brazil has successfully hosted megaevents like the World Cup and annually sees more than double the estimated Olympic tourists for events like Carnival and New Year’s Eve, the political and economic climate here today has created a context for concern.

Responding to an attack is not just a matter for law enforcement: Santoro says Rio's infrastructure for handling any sort of mass casualty event gives him pause, as police, hospitals, and firefighters have suffered serious hits in Brazil's recession-related budget cuts.

Elington Cacella, an explosives specialist from Rio's civil police anti-bomb squad, says he and his colleagues routinely see explosives in Rio, but they are rudimentary and typically target ATMs or are used by drug traffickers when police stage anti-narcotic operations. When the explosives land in residential areas and don’t explode, Mr. Cacella's team surrounds them with sandbags before defusing them.

Cacella says his equipment has improved: updated bomb suits, a robot to remotely take out explosives, and more sophisticated firearms and vehicles. He was part of a team of law enforcement officers sent to Boston to observe Marathon security after the 2013 bombings. One of his biggest takeaways was how regularly citizens and bystanders keep an eye on their own surroundings and immediately report suspicious activity or abandoned belongings.

"In Boston I saw an abandoned backpack. The people isolated it and they'd already called a robot. Nobody wanted to know whose it was. It was just: 'Send the robot,'" he says. Such an attitude doesn't jibe with daily realties in Rio, where thieves steal bags and throw them aside after removing any cellphones or money, he says. "Do you know how many bags are left in our bus station each day? 40! Imagine if 40 times a day you had to call the anti-bomb squad."

As he’s been exposed to security professionals from around the world, he speaks with admiration about how Colombia, Israel, Spain, and the US have some of the best security know-how.

And even if his anti-terror training isn’t used during the Olympic Games this summer, Cacella says individual cops like himself will act as multipliers, spreading their newly acquired skills.

“This knowledge accumulates," Cacella says. "It will pass along to other generations."

This story was corrected to reflect that the Brazil Olympics will be the first Games to be held in South America. 

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