The US reportedly helped Brazil track down and capture 11 suspected ISIS militants

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Brazilian police and special military forces are pictured outside the Mane Garrincha Stadium in Brasilia.
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Thomson Reuters

RIO DE JANEIRO – The US Federal Bureau of Investigation gave Brazil the tip that led to arrests this week of 11 suspected militants who had discussed a possible attack on the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, a Brazilian prosecutor said, according to Reuters.

In comments to several Brazilian newspapers published Saturday, Rafael Brum Miron, the federal prosecutor handling the case in the southern state of Parana, said the FBI had provided a brief report in which it identified at least six people it suspected as potential militants.

“The information came from the FBI,” he told the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper. “They sent a succinct report: These people merit investigating.”

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office confirmed the comments and said the FBI provided the tip in May, after which Brazilian investigators tracked the suspects’ communications and identified the other people arrested this week. A spokeswoman for the FBI in Washington declined to comment to Reuters.

An statement from Brazilian federal police on Thursday said that Brazil had been investigating suspected ISIS sympathizers since April as part of Operation Hashtag, tapping their phones and tracking their postings on social media and on messaging apps WhatsApp and Telegram.

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Brazilian federal police officers escort one of the 10 people they arrested on suspicions of ties to Islamic State in Sao Paulo.
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Thomson Reuters

As Vincent Bevins, the Los Angeles Times correspondent in Brazil, noted on Twitter, it’s likely that Brazilian authorities infiltrated WhatsApp channels used by the suspects, as WhatsApp communications are encrypted. (Brazil and WhatsApp have clashed in the past over access to messages sent via the app.)

“I think for years, ever since Brazil was awarded the games, there’s been intelligence-sharing,” Jim Hutton, chief security officer at travel-risk-management company On Call International, told Business Insider. “So at a very strategic level, those … conversations,” related to intelligence and best practices, “have been going on for four years,” Hutton said.

‘I don’t know of any experienced suicide bombers’

The arrests on Thursday, just two weeks before the first Olympics ever in South America begin August 5, come after a recent wave of violent attacks in Europe and the US and amid heightened fears that the games could be a target.

Initially, police arrested 10 suspects and said that another two were being monitored. On Friday, one of the other two turned himself into police.

The suspects, described by Brazil’s justice minister as poorly organized and “absolutely amateur,” were alleged sympathizers of the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group.

Although some of the suspects had pledged allegiance to ISIS online, investigators said they have no formal ties or backing from the group itself.

Only two of the suspects actually knew one another, police said, but the group communicated extensively online and through messaging services.

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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, July 21, 2016.
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REUTERS/Roosevelt Cassio

In their messages, police said, the suspects applauded recent attacks outside Brazil and expressed desire – but little know-how and no specific plans – to stage an attack during the Olympics. Investigators said one of the suspects sought to buy an AK-47 rifle online from a vendor in neighboring Paraguay.

Despite inexperience or lack of organization, investigators say it is important to identify such groups and derail even incipient plans, especially at a time when ISIS and other militant groups are actively seeking to recruit sympathizers and would-be attackers.

As Bevins noted, guns are generally hard to obtain in Brazil, though extensive criminal networks in the country, particularly in Rio, might make acquiring weaponry easier.

“Are they amateurs?” the prosecutor asked in the Estado interview, referring to the suspects arrested this week. He rhetorically answered his own question: “Yes, but I don’t know of any experienced suicide bombers.”

(Reporting for Reuters by Paulo Prada in Rio de Janeiro and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by Nick Zieminski)