Brazil arrested 10 people who pledged allegiance to ISIS, but the bigger threat to the Olympics may be more basic

On Thursday, 130 Brazilian police arrested 10 people who had pledged allegiance to the terrorist group ISIS and reportedly had ambitions of attacking the Olympic Games that begin in Rio de Janeiro on August 5.

The arrests, less than two weeks after a deadly rampage in Nice, France, that ISIS claimed to have inspired, raised the threat of international terrorism marring the games. Details have since emerged that suggest that these arrests may not be indicative of a looming danger of terrorism.

While the 10 suspects are being held on terrorism charges, Brazil’s interim justice minister, Alexandre de Moraes, downplayed the threat that they posed.

“They were complete amateurs and ill-prepared” to mount an attack, Moraes said, according to The Associated Press. “A few days ago they said they should start practicing martial arts, for example.”

The group, which Moraes called a “cell,” never met in person, using apps like WhatsApp and Telegram to communicate. Moraes said that the group did not have any bomb materials or funding and had tried to buy an AK-47 from Paraguay online, according to Univision.

Brazilian police had been tracking the group since April, monitoring their posts on Facebook and Twitter and tapping their phones. While they were ISIS sympathizers, none had traveled to Syria or Iraq or received any training.

“Public security should be of greater concern than terrorism, given the amateurism of this cell,” Moraes said.

Crimes of opportunity

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The Brazilian Public Safety National Force, left, and military-police soldiers guard an entrance outside of the 2016 Rio Olympics Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 21.
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REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

While the threat of terrorism can’t be discounted – especially in the aftermath of the attacks in Europe – crimes of opportunity and street violence likely pose a bigger risk to people in Rio for the games, experts say.

“While you can never rule out a kind of transnational terrorist opportunity, I do think [the risk] is the more in-your-face opportunistic things – pick-pocketing, mugging. I mean we’ve already had a couple of Olympic athletes get robbed,” Jim Hutton, chief security officer at travel-risk-management company On Call International, told Business Insider in an interview.

In June, two members of Australia’s Paralympic squad were robbed at gunpoint in a Rio park. A month before, a gold-medal-winning sailor from Spain was held up at gunpoint by a group of young men in Rio.

Crime in Rio has been on the rise throughout the year, as the security budget has been cut by one-third. Robberies have risen 30% since last year. Through the first five months of 2016, homicides in Rio were up 18%, to 1,870, compared to 2012, when homicides hit their lowest level in the last 10 years.

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In this July 11 photo, young drug traffickers with their weapons in a slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Teenagers openly tote guns while they work as guards, lookouts, and distributors for drug lords operating a few miles from where hundreds of thousands of tourists and athletes will be for the Olympics.
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AP Photo/Felipe Dana

Much of that violence has taken place in Rio’s slums – subjected to “pacification” programs in recent years – where an effort to recapture a drug boss who broke out of a hospital led to over a week of deadly shootouts at the end of June.

Brazil has promised to flood Rio with security personnel to ensure that the games run smoothly – 85,000 armed police and soldiers are to patrol the streets during the games, which is twice the number deployed for the London 2012 games, Hutton noted.

“When you think about the key hotel districts and areas where visitors and athletes are going to be … about the athlete compounds, the venues, [Brazilian authorities are] definitely going to flow tons of resources against that,” said Hutton, who also ran global security for Proctor & Gamble and worked with the US State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

But even with that immense deployment, vulnerabilities, particularly for visitors and tourists, will remain.

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A Brazilian army operation in the Mare slums complex in Rio de Janeiro in 2014.
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REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

“I think the challenge for [Brazilian officials] being stretched a little thinner might be kind of between point A and point B. And that’s where that opportunistic stuff,” like muggings, robberies, and carjackings, “could take place,” Hutton said.

‘I wouldn’t know what to do’

In the wake of recent attacks in France, Belgium, and Turkey, Brazil has said that it will review and revise its security preparations.

After the Nice attack, which left 84 people dead, interim Brazilian President Michel Temer held an emergency meeting with cabinet members, after which intelligence chief Sergio Etchegoyen said that new security measures would include extra checkpoints, barricades, and traffic restrictions.

“This is the kind of thing that makes you pause and go back and refresh what you’re doing based on what is a pretty simple threat: One guy with one truck. But look at the damage that he did,” Hutton said.

But those added measures may be undercut by other problems with Rio’s Olympic security.

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Sao Paulo state police take part in a simulated hostage situation during a security exercise ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics, in the airport of Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil, on July 21.
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REUTERS/Roosevelt Cassio

The contract to run security-screening checkpoints at venues during the games was awarded only at the beginning of July, going to a small firm without major-event-security experience that would need to hire some 6,000 people in five weeks to man the games, according to The Wall Street Journal.

As of this Monday, only 1,500 of those people had been hired, according to The Journal. Moreover, the screening process for new hires and the training they received appears to be woefully lacking. Some of the Rio police whom those new hires would be working with have well-documented involvement with criminal activity and other abuses.

“If I had to search someone, and they had a weapon or a bomb, then what?” Priscila Siqueira, a 31-year-old former IT worker with no security experience who was hired as a screener, told The Journal. “I wouldn’t know what to do.”