August 4, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Terrorism and the Rio Olympics

• The Rio Olympic Games will run from August 5 through August 21, and like every Olympics, there are concerns over terrorism.  

• While fears of terror attacks at the Olympics are nothing new, the demonstrated ability of the Islamic State to inspire attacks across the globe is unprecedented.

• The current trend of attacks against soft targets means security officials will be as concerned about cafes and beaches in Rio as they are about Olympic venues.

• As with other Olympics, Rio will expend massive security resources, though those resources only need to be sustained for two weeks.


Like every Olympic Games since 1972, concerns about terrorism at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro are peaking as the August 5 opening ceremony approaches. The Olympics are always a tremendous terror target; few venues rival the Games in terms of publicity, media coverage, and global interest. Since the 1972 terror attack in Munich, Olympic organizers and host countries have made security concerns a top of priority. The Olympics are an immense security challenge in the best of times, given the sprawling nature of the many venues and the two week time frame of the Games.

While every Olympics has its particular terror concerns, the threat environment surrounding the Rio Games is unparalleled. The so-called Islamic State has demonstrated that it is not only capable of directing complex, simultaneous multi-location attacks such as those seen in Paris and Brussels, but has also proven itself highly adept at inspiring lone actors and small groups to carry out attacks in its name. The diffuse nature of Islamic State-inspired attacks present the entities responsible for securing the Rio Games with an unprecedented challenge. While the planning, communication and coordination required to pull off directed attacks reduces the likelihood of a Paris-style attack at the 2016 Games, inspired attacks like those seen in Orlando, Nice, and Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray are much more difficult to defend against. Through the Islamic State’s ubiquitous social media campaign, the violent ideology of bin-Ladinism has reached every corner of the globe. While Brazil does not have a history of terrorism, it does have the internet, criminals, and disaffected youth—the common ingredients the Islamic State has taken advantage of throughout the world.

Despite the understandable fear surrounding an event of this magnitude, the threat the Islamic State poses to the Rio Olympics is not as severe as it might be elsewhere. Brazil does not have localized pockets of violent extremists and sympathizers like those seen in parts of France, Belgium, and elsewhere. The 2016 Olympics also have the added natural security barrier of an ocean separating the Games and the areas of strongest Islamic State support. Despite these mitigating factors, Brazil is home to a large number of criminal gangs. While it is highly unlikely these gangs would be involved in Islamic State directed or inspired terrorism, they provide a large pool of criminals from which the Islamic State draws a disproportionate number of its foreign recruits. Only a small number of Brazilians are thought to have traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. Still, on July 29, Brazilian officials confirmed the arrest of Chaer Kalaou, a Brazilian of Lebanese descent who had traveled to Syria to support the Islamic State and then returned to Brazil.

In addition to the the daunting task of protecting Olympic venues, the current trend of terror attacks against soft targets, such as cafes, churches, and shopping malls, means locations in Rio completely unrelated to the Olympics also face an increased threat. There is no way to harden an entire city, let alone one filled with thousands of tourists and spectators intent on enjoying all that Rio has to offer. Anywhere large numbers of tourists travel in Rio will be at increased risk of attack.

Despite the increased threat facing the Rio Games, the international importance and symbolism surrounding the Olympics will bring massive amounts of security-related resources in terms of manpower, money, and lessons learned. The Olympics are a major terrorism target, but it is also one of the most heavily secured events in the world. The security resources of every major world power will be at the disposal of the Brazilian government and the International Olympic Committee. While ensuring the security of the Rio Olympics will be a huge challenge, it is one in which no expense or resource will be spared.


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