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We Asked Terrorism Experts About ISIS and the Olympics

The consensus is that a massive, Paris-style attack is extremely unlikely, but the danger of a lone wolf is real.

A soldier stands in guard next to the beach volleyball venue at the Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, July 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Just days after the Islamic State's November assault on Paris that killed 130 people, a French national and known Islamic State executioner named Maxime Hauchard tweeted a grim warning. "Brazil, you are our next target," it read, sparking fears that the group might target the Rio de Janeiro Olympics Games, which start Friday, in yet another attempt to wreak havoc across the globe.

For months, nothing seemed to come of the threat, leaving terrorism a secondary concern after Brazil's ongoing Zika woes and environmental clusterfuck. But on May 29, ISIS launched its first Portuguese-language Telegram propaganda channel, and on June 3, an affiliate channel appealed for help from Portuguese speakers, according to the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC). Throughout the summer, jihadists called for lone-wolf attacks at the games, and in mid July, French intelligence forces acknowledged a credible threat against members of their own team. About three weeks ago, a domestic Brazilian group called Ansar al-Khilafah Brazil pledged its loyalty to ISIS leadership. Over the following days, Brazil launched a sting, arresting a dozen Brazilian-born members suspected of belonging to another group, the Defenders of Shariah. That outfit had allegedly pledged its own allegiance, discussed an attack on the games, and attempted to purchase at least one AK-47 from Paraguay.

Finally, just last week, Brazilian police arrested a Rio man on allegations of supporting ISIS online.

The deluge of jihadi chatter and official responses raise some serious questions about security at the games. Some might brush these fears off as sensational given the paucity of any major ISIS activity in South America since the group became a global menace. But even if the risk of a coordinated, Paris-style attack is low, between a small but longstanding jihadi strain in Brazil, legitimate concerns about security at any Olympics, and the perpetual challenge of combatting lone-wolf terrorist attacks, the danger of some kind of tragedy is real.

To be sure, even if terrorist threats before the Olympics are routine, actual incidents are historically rare and incredibly tough to carry out. Pre-game arrests are also common and often intended to reassure the public. Marcos Degaut, a Brazilian ex-intelligence officer, and Marcos Ferreira, a counter-terror expert at the Federal University of Paraíba, both suspect security theater played a large role in the nation's recent arrests, and indeed, Brazilian officials have labeled the Defenders of Shariah as mere amateurs.

Like much of Latin America, Brazil also has a fairly small Muslim population, which according to Maximiliano Korstanje, a terrorism scholar at Argentina's University of Palermo, is mostly well-assimilated. Combined with Brazil's relative disconnection from Middle Eastern affairs and tendency to look critically on American interventionism, there are relatively few grievances for local or international jihadi groups to jump on there.

Besides, many recent fears—about radicalization among Syrian refugees or an al Qaeda heavy making his way into the country—turned out to be bogus. But Degaut believes we should take recent threats seriously given the wider jihadi dynamics at play in the area. Despite government denials, he (like many others) say militant Islamist groups including al Qaeda have footholds on the porous border between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. A 2011 report by the Brazilian magazine Veja noted 20 major jihadis living in Brazil, whose long-term presence may have been abetted by lax anti-terror laws. Last August, Brazil busted up an alleged pro-ISIS money-laundering-jihadi-funding ring in São Paulo.

Ferreira also says the number of converts to Islam in Brazil is on the rise, and that disaffected urban youth may be prone to ISIS propaganda. He and Degaut both question the wisdom of the government's recent, highly publicized arrests in this context. "It provided potential terrorists the kind of publicity that they need" for propaganda, Degaut told VICE, adding that the crackdown "revealed to terrorists how the government forces work."

Brazil has plenty of experience hosting sporting mega events, and ostensibly the Rio games will have enough security to contain any threat that emerges. Screeners note they've already blocked attempted entries into Brazil for the games by 40 people with suspected terrorist ties, and the state has even received training from partner nations to bolster their counter-terror capacity. "I am in Rio now," Ferreira told me Wednesday. "I've never seen so many police, military, and security in the streets. The vulnerability [here] will be the same seen in any part of the world hosting an event like this."

But Brazil is in the middle of a series of financial and political crises. Degaut says crime remains elevated, even in supposedly safe areas covered by ramped up security—some incidents have supposedly come at the hands of officers. Brazil also waited until last month to award a contract for thousands of venue guards, and as of Sunday, the selected firm had reportedly provided just 500 personnel, leaving the state to scramble police and military replacements. The state has also had trouble massing soldiers to respond to last-minute developments at sites outside of the venues, according to Ferreira.

Again, experts canvassed by VICE broadly agree it will be almost impossible for any group to pull off a massive attack at a major-game site. But they cite the potential for an individual jihadi to launch a lone-wolf attack—especially in a less-hardened city like Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Salvador, or São Paulo, all of which will be hosting Olympic events as well. Other possible targets include a hotel or party site beyond the zone of the games and military-police saturation.

As Veryan Khan of the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium put it, "No one can really prepare for a lone wolf–style attack."

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.