As athletes and spectators gear up for the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, security experts and professionals are also preparing. On April 13, the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (ABIN) issued a report assessing the threat to the upcoming Olympic Torch Relay, which will travel through several European countries and 329 Brazilian cities before arriving in Rio de Janeiro for the Aug. 5 opening ceremony. Among other items, ABIN's report confirmed that a French Islamic State member named Maxime Hauchard was responsible for a November 2015 tweet threatening attacks in Brazil. Issued in the wake of the extremist attacks in Paris, the message warned, "Brazil, you are our next target." Of the many risks discussed in ABIN's report, the Hauchard revelation garnered the most buzz and made international headlines about the Islamic State's threat to the Summer Games.
Yet despite the heavy media coverage that this threat has attracted, several unrelated and more likely dangers to athletes and spectators lurk in the upcoming Olympics.
The Terrorism Threat
Considering the hubbub surrounding possible terrorism at the Olympics, I'll get it out of the way at the start: Despite the hype, terrorism poses a relatively low risk to competitors or visitors in Rio de Janeiro for several reasons. First, assuming that the Islamic State's core group has the capability to attack in the Western Hemisphere — something it has yet to demonstrate — it has much bigger fish to fry than Brazil. Namely, these are the United States and Canada, part of the international coalition actively fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and two countries that, moreover, the group has repeatedly threatened to attack. Unlike the Islamic State's regular promises to strike the United States, Canada and various European countries, the Brazil threat is, so far, an isolated incident.
Despite the hype, terrorism poses a relatively low risk to competitors or visitors in Rio de Janeiro.
Second, if the Islamic State could and were indeed planning to dispatch operatives to attack the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, alerting authorities to its intentions would be the last thing the group would want to do. After all, the Islamic State would not want to risk having its plot foiled, and attacking is much easier in a complacent environment than in an alert one.
The recent attacks in Paris and Brussels, as well as attacks in the United States and Canada, exemplify the Islamic State's (and for that matter, al Qaeda's) modus operandi. The group has struggled to send professional terrorist cadres from abroad to carry out attacks. Instead, it relies primarily on homegrown, grassroots jihadists who are citizens of targeted countries. And as the Islamic State loses territory, men and resources, radicalized jihadists and grassroots militants returning from places such as Syria and Iraq will remain the group's greatest weapon outside its core areas. This is important in the context of possible terrorism in Brazil because Brazil simply has not been a significant source of jihadist fighters. Only three jihadists have traveled from Brazil to fight in Syria and Iraq, according to a December 2015 study published by The Soufan Group. By contrast, thousands of foreign fighters have come from Western Europe and hundreds from the United States and Canada. Although 1,700 fighters from France, or even 470 from Belgium, may be enough to overwhelm law enforcement and intelligence agencies, three is a far more manageable caseload to track and monitor.
Undoubtedly, radicalized jihadists live in Brazil, and some might not have come to the attention of Brazilian law enforcement and intelligence. Nonetheless, they are few in number, and they do not enjoy the same sort of operational environment that jihadists in France and Belgium do. Indeed, Brazil's grassroots terrorist threat more closely resembles that in the United States and Canada. Consequently, the most likely attack in Brazil would be a small-scale strike against a very soft target, conducted by a poorly trained militant acting alone or as part of a small group — something akin to Atlanta's 1996 Olympic Park bombing or the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
Statistically, far more people will be affected by street crime during the Olympics than by terrorism. The murder rate in Brazil is four times higher than it is in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of State, and the incidence of other crimes in the country is commensurately elevated. For instance, kidnapping is a serious problem in Brazil. Frequently, gangs that specialize in express or lightning kidnappings target foreigners who have had too much to drink. Some victims of these "quicknappings" have been beaten or raped.
Events such as the Olympics tend to draw pickpockets, con artists, muggers, prostitutes and other criminals from all over the country and region. During the games, Brazilian criminals will target citizens and foreign visitors, especially near attractions such as beaches, bars, nightclubs and hotels. And criminals come in all shapes and sizes. Not too long ago, a band of children mugged a friend of mine in Rio de Janeiro. Until one of the kids pulled a knife on her, she had not considered them a legitimate danger. Fortunately, they did not hurt her but stole her purse, cellphone and jewelry.
Street protests, too, are a potential hazard. In Brazil, protests can be large and violent: It is not unusual for protesters to engage in battles with police, launching bricks, bottles and Molotov cocktails at officers, who respond with tear gas and batons. During the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, anarchists in cities across the country blocked streets and burned buses, severely disrupting transportation. Now, large and generally peaceful demonstrations are underway in Brazil to show support for or opposition to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. In May, Brazil's Senate will vote on Rousseff's impeachment. If she does not accept the final decision, then further unrest could erupt in the country. Should protests continue through the Olympic Games, they could reach the scale and pitch of the 2013 protests. In any event, visitors to Rio de Janeiro should resist the urge to gawk at the spectacle and instead avoid protests.
Beyond political demonstrations, the normal array of protests focused at various Olympic sponsors and participating countries can be expected at the 2016 games. Though most of these are likely to be more dramatic than violent, protests staged by environmental and animal rights activists or anarchists could escalate.
Traffic accidents are the top killer of Americans abroad.
At the same time, controversy in Brazil over ride-hailing companies such as Uber could provide further fodder for potential protests and disturbances. Last year, Rio de Janeiro passed a law banning the services from operating in the city. Subsequently, a court injunction declared the law unconstitutional, allowing ride-hailing companies to return. As a result, taxi drivers have taken to the city's streets, staging mass protests, the latest of which was held April 1. Furthermore, drivers for and passengers of ride-hailing services have been subject to threats and violence in the wake of the decision. This issue is unlikely to be resolved before the Olympics, and a disruptive taxi strike or protest could occur during the games. For this reason, passengers who choose to use ride-hailing services in Brazil should practice increased situational awareness during pickups and drop-offs.
Health and Safety Concerns
In addition to well-publicized concerns over holding water events in Rio de Janeiro's polluted Guanabara Bay, mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika, chikungunya and dengue will also pose a significant environmental threat during the Summer Olympics. For information on these and other health risks, travelers should review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's alert for the 2016 Olympics.
One final threat bears mention. As noted a few weeks back, traffic accidents are the top killer of Americans abroad. More foreign travelers are likely to be killed and injured in traffic accidents during the Olympics and Paralympics than by terrorism and crime combined. Therefore, when planning a safe trip to the Summer Games, transportation arrangements should be considered just as thoughtfully as other aspects.