Threats to Olympics are Nothing New, But Must Not Be Ignored
As the Rio 2016 Olympics come near, al-Qaeda (AQ) and Islamic State (IS) supporters have been paying close attention. In the two months leading to the event, IS has increased attention to Brazil and Portuguese speaking audiences, and for the first time ever, IS propaganda is being translated to Portuguese on social media. Among these messages was a pledge to IS on behalf of Brazilian supporters, posted on social media. This activity has been accompanied by a pro-AQ Telegram channel’s ongoing calls for attacks at the Rio Olympics, which have included suggestions to use poison and weaponized drones to attack attendees and athletes.
These threats and increased outreach are not at all surprising. The multinational nature of the Olympics makes it a symbolic and unanimously acceptable target for groups like al-Qaeda (AQ) and IS. To that point, jihadists have made threats to other Olympic events, including those in Sochi and Beijing.
While in previous years, such threats would have been made to highly limited audiences on deep web forums, jihadists are now posting them on social media, making their messages much farther reaching and thus much more dangerous.
While in previous years, such threats would have been made to highly limited audiences on deep web forums, jihadists are now posting them on social media, making their messages much farther reaching and thus much more dangerous. We may have seen the first consequences of this recently increased outreach to Portuguese speakers when authorities arrested 10 alleged IS sympathizers plotting attacks on the Rio Olympics.
Seeing the reach of this messaging, it has become ever more important for Brazilian authorities not to underrate the damage that "amatuer" attackers are capable of, and instead study this new wave of jihadi outreach and adapt accordingly.
Portuguese Outreach from the IS Community Online
Around late May to early June, IS supporters began promoting Spanish and Portuguese versions of “Nashir” (translating to “Publisher”), IS’ official Telegram channel for communiques, videos, and other materials.
The channels, which translate Nashir posts to their respective languages, have remained consistently active and are regularly promoted by those within the pro-IS community online. Notably, the Nashir Portuguese channel posted a Portuguese translation of IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-'Adnani's May 2016 speech, "And Those Who Were to Live Might Live after a Clear Evidence,” which contained orders for IS supporters to commit lone wolf attacks.
On July 17 2016, matters escalated when a group calling itself "Ansar al-Khilafah Brazil" (“Supporters of the Caliphate Brazil”) posted an Arabic language pledge to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Telegram. The pledge read in part:
We pledge allegiance to the Emir of the Believers, the Caliph of the Muslims, Ibrahim ibn Awwad ibn Ibrahim al-Badri al-Husseini al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi, to listen and obey, to listen and obey in times of hardship and ease, in difficulty and prosperity, and to endure being discriminated against, and to establish the religion of Allah, and to wage jihad against the enemy of Allah, and not to dispute about the decisions of those in power except in case of evident infidelity regarding which there is a proof from Allah.
The channel also posted a Portuguese message questioning the benefit of French police officers training Brazilian police forces, noting that the former were unable to prevent recent terror attacks on their own soil.
Plotters Used Apps Popular Among Jihadists
Recent reports that Brazilian authorities arrested 10 alleged IS supporters plotting attacks on the Rio 2016 Olympics cannot confirm the extent of their connection to IS or “Ansar al-Khilafah Brazil.” However, Justice Minister Alexandre Moraes’ statement that they were using WhatsApp and Telegram echoes reports of past terror plots. Both of these messaging applications are popular amongst IS supporters and members, and have been used to coordinate attacks as well as migration to jihadi battlefronts. I recently wrote an article on jihadists' app use, which you can read here.
Direct Calls for Attack
In the last few days, a pro-AQ jihadi Telegram channel has posted an array of atttack incitements for the Rio 2016 Olympics. The channel's messages have included a series of 17 attack suggestions pertaining to targets and methods of attack. The channel, currently going by the name “Inspire the Believers,” regularly calls for terror attacks and forwards attack guides via “Inspire,” al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) English magazine. It does not appear connected to the aforementioned Nashir or Ansar al-Khilafah Telegram channels.
The first message, made on July 19, 2016, stated that the Rio Olympics would “have targets from all the countries in war with us representing their countries,” and claimed that “travel to Brazil will be very easy” for lone wolves. The post then gave 17 suggestions for attacks, which included targeting “American/UK/French/Israeli Athletes and visitors” and “big govt officials, ambassadors, chief guests for Combatant enemy countries.” Regarding attack methods, the channel stated that attackers could drop “poisons or medicines…on target's foods, drinks,” or use “toy drones with small explosives.” The post ended by suggesting that that attackers “refer to Inspire Magazine” for further direction.
The next day, July 20, 2016, Inspire the Believers suggested that jihadists exploit “crime-ridden slums” and “the porous border with Paraguay” to get guns. It also suggested that they cause traffic accidents with oil or hidden nails, and provided pages from “Inspire” instructing how to do so. Hours later, the channel even suggested that attackers take inspiration from the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, wherein Palestinian attackers kidnapped and killed members of the Israeli team.
On July 21, 2016, the channel continued inciting for attacks, suggesting that jihadists weaponize drones by attaching “light sharp knives and blades” or “explosives.”
How to Assess These Threats
These threats may likely leave many Brazilians surprised, and even worried, but this wouldn’t be the first time that an unsuspecting country has been threatened by jihadists. Modern terrorism is a wide-reaching phenomenon from which no country is insusceptible. On social media, jihadists now reach their tentacles anywhere there is an internet connection—be that country Western or Middle Eastern, Secular or Islamic.
On social media, jihadists now reach their tentacles anywhere there is an internet connection—be that country Western or Middle Eastern, Secular or Islamic.
Furthermore, IS and AQ supporters only have to look mounting list of executed lone wolf attacks in the West—like those witnessed in Orlando, Magnanville, Nice, and Wuerzburg—to conclude that these incitements are working. This perceived success will only prompt more calls for attacks, as it would only take one willing attacker in Brazil to inflict such damage.
At the same time, these threats also give these groups a lot of attention, which is beneficial to them regardless of whether or not there is an attack.
While Brazil's arrests do appear to show that authorities are paying attention to the jihadi threat in their country, it was troubling to see that Moraes said the individuals comprised “an absolutely amateur cell, with no preparation at all.” I certainly hope this isn’t an attempt to undermine such threats, because as we saw with Omar Mateen's shooting in Orlando, which killed 49, or Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel vehicular attack in France, which killed 84, even the most “amateur” of attackers can do serious damage. And it only takes one person like this to take up a call for attacks.
Furthermore, authorities’ arrests of these individuals suggest that there are other likeminded jihadists in the country. The Brazilian government must study this new form of jihadism on an ongoing basis. Elements to study should include jihadists’ outreach Portuguese-speaking audiences, related social media accounts, goals for expansion, circulated threats or targets, and which social media platforms and messaging technologies they are using to recruit and communicate.
At the end of the day, we shouldn’t let terror threats scare us from enjoying the Olympics. Even after reading these threats on a regular basis, I’d still take myself and my family to see the games at Rio in a heartbeat. However, it is of the upmost importance that authorities pay serious mind to these threats so that people can do so safely.