Venezuela’s opposition tries to unite against Maduro
Opposition supporters protest in Caracas.
This story was published in Arab News on Feb. 10, 2017:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
Special to Arab News
BRASILIA: A divided opposition in Venezuela is trying to put their differences aside to fight the political repression of President Nicolas Maduro, attempt to stop the country’s economy from sliding even more into depression, and to lower sky-high inflation.
President Maduro, an avid socialist, and protege of the late President Hugo Chavez, who is responsible for Venezuela’s voyage down the road to allegedly become a worker’s republic, has resorted to imprisoning political opponents and protesters. On the economic front, things have not gone well. The economy has been in a downward spiral for the past few years, ever since the international price of crude oil plunged in 2014. The country is dependent on imports for most of its food and goods, and with strict price controls enforced by the government, and forced nationalizations of whole sectors, this has led to widespread shortages of everything from soap, meat, sugar to toilet paper.
Despite opposition parties winning a majority of seats in Parliament in the December 2015 elections, 112 out of 167 seats, the Maduro government refuses to share power with them or even talk with them. For his new year address to the nation, Maduro did not deliver his speech in front of Parliament as is customary, but in front of the Supreme Court which is packed with his supporters.
This has caused regular street protests against the government, and Maduro has responded by having protesters arrested. Foro Penal, an NGO of lawyers who came together to defend protesters who get arrested, estimates that between 2013 and 2016, 429 protesters were arrested, and that 106 were still in jail at the end of December 2016. It estimates that there were 2,732 detentions in Venezuela for political reasons in 2016 alone, and that from January 2014 to December 2016 there were 6,831 political detentions.
“Maduro has created a sort of revolving door, a few leave and many more come in,” said Gonzalo Himiob, one of Foro Penal’s directors, to the Brazilian newspaper O Globo last month. “The economic and social crisis is very serious and will cause many more protests,” he added.
“The government must either file formal charges and try people in open court, or release them. Indefinite holding of individuals without trial makes a mockery of the judicial system,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Venezuelan historian and professor of Latin American Studies at Pomona College in California, in an interview with Arab News.
The opposition started a petition last year to have Maduro removed from office for incompetence, but despite getting the required signatures from 20 percent of registered voters, election officials stopped the petition in October 2016. A poll by Datanalisis at the time found that 90 percent of the population believed the country was going in the wrong direction, and 76 percent wanted Maduro to leave office.
In January 2017 Maduro appointed the hard line governor of Aragua, Tareck El Aissami, as his new vice president. By the end of the month he gave Aissami economic decree powers, making him one of the most powerful men in Venezuela. This caused the opposition to rethink their strategy of removing Maduro from president, since the vice president would take over in such a scenario.
Although opposition parties have formed a coalition called the Democratic Unity Roundtable, known by its Spanish acronym MUD, they have been severely divided, able at times to rouse large street protests across the country against Maduro’s rule, and at other times unable to.
“The opposition parties in Venezuela are divided, and there are calls from Maria Corina Machado and others to disband the MUD and form a new organization. Some in the opposition want a recall; while others prefer to oust Maduro through street actions, and yet others would rather confront the government in statewide elections for governor later this year. They hope that regional elections would set the stage for presidential elections where they hope to defeat Maduro,” Salas said.
Both the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and the Vatican have been trying to negotiate an agreement between the Maduro government and the opposition, but to no avail so far. The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, has been especially critical of Maduro’s repression of opposition protests, and pointed out in an interview to the El Observador newspaper at the end of January that there was a need to act now in Venezuela because the mediation efforts of Unasur and Vatican had been a failure.
“People have been deprived of their constitutional right to recall President Maduro, political prisoners are still incarcerated, violence is rampant, and there is widespread hunger. The international community cannot wait any longer and must act now,” Almagro said.
But Salas believes that the OAS has been sidelined in Venezuela because of its criticism of Maduro’s rule.
“The secretary of the OAS, Almagro, has engaged in sharp personal attacks on the government, while turning a blind eye to issues in other countries such as Mexico. As a result the OAS has been largely sidelined in Venezuela. The key players have been Unasur and the Catholic Church. With Ernesto Samper’s resignation as secretary general of Unasur, it is still unclear what future role the body will play in Venezuela,” said Salas.
After not having much to show for after years of street protests, the opposition MUD coalition is now planning new ways of appealing to the Venezuelan electorate.
Jesus Torrealba, the secretary general of MUD, told the Americas Quarterly that they would be doing more outreach to poorer voters this year. He said they would rotate its leadership and include civil society in its decision making.
Brazil tries to contain yellow fever outbreak
This story was published in Arab News on Feb. 2, 2017:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
Special to Arab News
BRASILIA: Brazil is trying to contain an outbreak of yellow fever that has already claimed 46 lives, by vaccinating inhabitants of high-risk areas.
There have been 568 suspected cases of yellow fever so far this year, with 430 still being investigated, 107 confirmed cases and 31 discarded ones, according to the Health Ministry.
The outbreak is centered in rural areas of southeast Minas Gerais state, and the bordering areas of the states of Bahia and Espirito Santo.
“Apparently the state governments involved were rather slow in vaccinating everyone, but as soon as the outbreak happened they started to quickly vaccinate the population at risk,” Dirceu Bartolomeu Greco, an infection specialist and professor at the School of Medicine of the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, told Arab News.
“I think we may have reached the peak of the current outbreak. This serves as a very important reminder that the preventive part of this is perhaps the most important. I think this outbreak will be controlled.”
There is no known cure for yellow fever, so getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent contracting the disease.
It is a viral infection that causes fever, headache, chills, back pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle pain, nausea and vomiting. In advanced stages it attacks the liver, causing the victim’s skin to turn yellow.
Brazil has been battling the disease since the mid-1800s. It originated in Africa and was brought to South America by slaves.
The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) in Rio de Janeiro has been leading the fight against yellow fever in Brazil since its establishment in 1900, and today produces millions of doses of yellow fever vaccine for Brazil and various countries in Africa.
The Health Ministry reinforced its strategic stock of vaccine with an additional 11.5 million doses. It has already sent out an extra 5.4 million doses to five states: 2.9 million to Minas Gerais, 1.05 million to Espirito Santo, 400,000 to Bahia, 350,000 to Rio de Janeiro and 700,000 to Sao Paulo.
The problem is that many people living in urban areas have rushed to public health posts to be vaccinated for free, causing temporary shortages of the vaccine in some cities.
In Luziania, Goias, just 57 kilometers from the capital Brasilia, a suspected yellow fever death led to a rush on vaccination centers, causing a 30 percent increase in the number of people seeking vaccination, O Globo newspaper reported.
The federal government sent an extra 100,000 doses to Goias. The state government of Goias said 94 percent of its population is already vaccinated against the disease. The strain of yellow fever prevalent in Brazil is spread by mosquitoes living in rural areas, where monkeys are the common carriers of the virus.
The government recommends that Brazilians living in 19 states, mostly in the mid-west and north of the country, take the vaccine.
New scientific studies have shown that a single yellow fever vaccination could possibly protect a person their whole life.
“The advantage of the vaccine is that studies are showing that you’ll probably only need one dose to protect yourself for life,” said Greco.
Studies have shown that a single vaccination has protected some patients for up to 30 years. Current practice recommends that people living in or traveling to high-risk areas be vaccinated every 10 years.
Rapid expansion of the population into rural areas has added to the severity of yellow fever outbreaks, said Greco: “Brazil hasn’t had an urban outbreak of yellow fever since 1942, but we need to keep an eye on this push into rural areas and keep up our prevention campaigns.”
The virus is transmitted in Brazil by mosquitoes in rural, heavily wooded areas, not by the Aedes aegypti mosquitos of urban areas that have already spread dengue fever and the Zika virus. This year’s outbreak of yellow fever has been the largest in Brazil’s history, Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper reported.
In 2000 there were 85 cases and 40 deaths, in 2008 there were 46 cases and 27 deaths, and in 2009 there were 47 cases and 17 deaths.
National service is a must
Saudi soldiers in formation.
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The call by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Alsheikh for mandatory military conscription of Saudi youth is an overdue and excellent one. Not only would it bring much needed discipline into the lives of young Saudis, it would also give them a greater purpose in life.
The Grand Mufti said he wanted to see specific legislation enacted that would make military service compulsory for young Saudi men for a specified period of time. Our government would do well to seriously look into this. Many countries around the world have had mandatory military service for decades, and even our Gulf allies such as Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE already have some form of military service.
Can you imagine the discipline of having to rise at 4:30 in the morning and be ready for full inspection by 5 a.m.? Conscripts would have to make their own beds, shine their own shoes and wash their own clothes. No one would have their Indonesian maid there to do all of the domestic chores. No, the Saudi youth will have to do this themselves, and do it well without complaining.
I think the idea of mandatory military service should be expanded to include national service such as doing volunteer work, like helping to build housing for the poor, so as to accommodate Saudis who absolutely do not want to do military service. That way, Saudi women could also be included in this mandatory public service, which would be a great way to build confidence, capability and experience among all of our youth.
I attended the Misk Global Forum in Riyadh last week, and was very pleased to see so many young Saudis, both male and female, attending and asking relevant questions of the speakers. But I still think that as a nation we lack certain basic life skills and independence to do them, which other youth have learned through necessity. While our oil wealth has been a blessing in that it has enabled us to be able to hire maids and drivers to help us in our daily lives, it has also made many of us “dumb” in many ways. How many young Saudis are capable of cleaning their own rooms, washing their own clothes and bathrooms without the help of servants? This may seem like something trivial, but it is not. We must have these everyday life skills in order to prove to ourselves that we are capable and not helpless, spoiled brats.
To sweeten the prospects of military and national service, the government could promise to give university scholarships for those Saudis who excel in their service to study abroad. In return, the government would insist that these scholarship students return to the Kingdom to work for a certain number of years.
Young Saudis are far too often accused of being lazy and of floating through life without any purpose. This is unfortunate; something that mandatory national service would certainly help change. In order for this concept to work, all Saudis regardless of wealth or position would be obliged when they turn 18 years old to undertake national service for a minimum of one year or 18 months. They would of course be paid a monthly stipend by the government for their service. Refresher training every five years, for two months until the age of 35, would keep our military conscripts up to date with the latest techniques.
Compulsory national service is an idea that is long overdue. Young Saudis are in dire need of such a program to give them purpose in life and to make them responsible and valuable citizens. For sure there will be much resistance to this idea in the beginning, but when the youth see the benefits of it, they will surely be glad that the government introduced it.
Holding workers accountable
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, visits an empty government office.
This article was printed in Arab News on September 11, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The surprise inspection of government offices in Dubai on the morning of Aug. 28 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the UAE’s prime minister and ruler of Dubai, found that many managers were not at their desks working. Video released of the ruler showed him walking around empty offices, looking at papers piled on desks and not looking pleased at all.
His surprise inspection tour took him to the municipality, Dubai international airport, the
Land Department and the Department of Economic Development. The next day his office announced the retirement of nine of these managers, mentioning their titles and full names. It was a way of naming and shaming. Just imagine if a similar thing happened here in Saudi Arabia? It would send shockwaves through our bloated bureaucracy.
The ruler felt he could not fire subordinates for not being at work when their superiors were also skipping work. He also stressed that the retirements were a method of retiring the older generation, who had already proved their abilities, to allow the younger generation a chance at running things.
The problem with public servants all around the world is that they often become entrenched and entitled bureaucracies that only want to do their duties when they feel like it and at their own pace. Egypt and India are two countries that have huge civil service contingents that are very efficient when they want to be, and incredibly slow, hard-headed and lazy when it suits them.
Go to any government office in the developing world and more often than not you will find long queues of people waiting to be attended to by bureaucrats. Meanwhile, the government workers can be seen drinking endless cups of tea and bantering among each other, seemingly oblivious to the waiting public. It seems that the quasi-for life jobs that they have, shield them from the efficiency standards that the private sector is subject to.
A recent cartoon in a Saudi newspaper showed a worker running out of an office while hurriedly telling a tea boy to leave a glass of tea on his desk so that his boss would think that he is somewhere in the building and coming back soon. I think everyone who has ever worked in an office laughed at reading the cartoon’s text as it must have struck a chord. But it captured perfectly the attempt of many in Saudi Arabia to appear to be working, while in fact slacking off to go to a social gathering, to smoke or just to bunk off work at the expense of the employer.
Unfortunately far too many Saudis and Gulf citizens think this is still acceptable behavior as long as they don’t get caught neglecting their professional responsibilities. This leads to a loss of morale among other workers in the offices where this occurs. It is also incredibly inefficient and unfair as well; as more often than not someone else in the office will have to do the shirker’s work on top of their own work.
I am sure that there some Saudis who work extremely hard and do not fit this pattern of behavior. Often, we have been lulled into this sense of entitlement and consequent slacking off because of the immense oil wealth we as a nation have been fortunate enough to be blessed with. “Oh, someone else can do my work,” has normally been the attitude. But with the plunge in oil prices, and the realization that our oil reserves will not last forever, Saudis have better wake up soon to their new reality and work much harder than they have ever before.
Iran’s pack of lies
This column was printed in Arab News on September 17, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
With the Haj pilgrimage just successfully completed in Makkah with no serious injuries this year, without any Iranian pilgrims, and with Saudi Arabia successfully fighting to stop Iranian domination of Syria and Yemen from taking place, the Iranian government has decided once again to lash out at the Kingdom.
In a shocking and sickening opinion piece for the New York Times this week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif calls on the world to rid the world of “Wahhabism,” using a term that we Saudis have rejected for decades. He falsely claims that Saudi money funds such extremist groups as Daesh and the Nusra Front in Syria. The whole article would be laughable if not for the sinister tone pervading it. Indeed, a British friend of mine was horrified at the piece, telling me that it sounded as if the Iranians were calling for the genocide of all Saudis.
Indeed it is highly ironic that a country that has vowed to export its Islamic Revolution since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, is now accusing Saudis of exporting conflict and death. Everyone is well aware that the Iranians were behind the formation of the Hezbollah guerilla group in Lebanon; and that their support of the Assad regime in Syria has caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the civil war there, now in its fifth year.
Zarif brings up the old canard of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US as “proof” that Saudi Arabia is bent on attacking everyone. But the 9/11 Commission report found that no Saudi official gave support to the hijackers. Then he accuses Saudi money of funding extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh. The Saudi government has said that some misguided individuals may have donated money to these groups and even fought for them, but that does not mean the government supports them. Far from it. Al-Qaeda and Daesh are deadly enemies of the majority of law-abiding Saudis, with both groups responsible for a string of bloody terror attacks in the country that have claimed many lives.
Zarif claims that the Kingdom is confronting Iran in all of the Middle East in order to contain Iran. That he got right. If there is one country in the region that is fanning the flames of sectarianism it is Iran with its support of Shiite militias in Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. He falsely claims that Saudi Arabia pines for the return to the days when Saddam Hussein was live and in power. Saudis are not sentimental for the past, but that does not mean that they will sit quietly and allow Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen run roughshod over Sunni communities.
After all, everyone with a few brain cells realizes that the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 brought in a Shiite-majority government backed by Iran with militias that have killed, intimidated, tortured, extorted, blackmailed, kidnapped and summarily executed thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians because of their sect. Even the Saudi ambassador to Baghdad has been the target of threats from Shiite militias in Iraq, who have said they would kill him.
Zarif also brings up the old accusation that the Kingdom has exported an intolerant version of Islam by funding the building of mosques and Islamic centers for Muslim communities around the world. This is patently untrue. Here in Brazil, the Kingdom has helped fund more than 50 mosques since the 1970s, most of them staffed by Egyptian imams. No extremist Muslim groups have popped up here, except for a few terrorist suspects that were arrested in July and who were influenced by Daesh through the Internet and not in local mosques.
It is cynical of Zarif to suggest at the end of his screed that the Kingdom can be part of the solution of tackling radical Islam, as if we need his permission or blessing to fight against the misguided monsters of Daesh and Al-Qaeda.
The Kingdom has never been against the Iranian people, but it will not stand still and allow the Iranian government to run roughshod over Sunni communities throughout the Arab world. Cooler heads need to prevail in Tehran to stop the current clash between the two sides, which may ignite into a conflagration much larger than the current one.
Q&A with Manolo Quezon III on drug killings
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
I recently wrote a column on the ongoing war in the Philippines against drug pushers and users. The escalating body count has alarmed human rights groups and the United Nations, who have called on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to reign in the violent campaign, speak out against extrajudicial killings and to respect the rule of law.
So far, Duterte has shown no signs of reigning in the killings.
For more perspective on this issue, I interviewed Manolo L. Quezon III, who was undersecretary of presidential communications under President Nonoy Aquino, and is a well-known political analyst and columnist. Here is the entire text of the interview:
Rasheed’s World: What are your general thoughts on this campaign? Do you support it, or think that it has gone too far with nearly 2,000 already dead?
Manolo L. Quezon III: The number of dead is an indication of what is problematic. An official distinction has been made between “legitimate” killings and those attributed to either preemptive internal purges within drug syndicates, or by vigilantes. The problem is that the mechanisms and manpower of the government seem hard-pressed (and sometimes simply disinclined) to clearly determine by means of inquests which fatality can be attributed to which of the supposed simultaneous trends going on. Responsibility, either by negligence or design, is also diffused; the entire police apparatus has been mobilized, and like any big organization the level of competence of various detachments varies widely. The result is all the public has to go on is confidence in both the president and his principal lieutenants in the police and other organs of the government.
The campaign itself seems to be modeled after that of Thaksin in Thailand –again problematic, because it was generally deemed a failure. Its domestic characteristics date to the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (former president and one of the big players in the Duterte coalition) and some of her former people who had attempted saturation drives during her term, and whose political allies first tried to raise narco-politics as an issue in the 2010 campaign (narco-politics as an issue of public concern had emerged in 2001, the period of transition from the Estrada administration which was ousted from office and replaced with Arroyo). Both Thaksin and Arroyo (or their officials) in the face of their anti-drug efforts also found it convenient to use narco-politics as a political issue; this is risky because, as the present administration is also doing, any carelessness in accusations diminishes the long-term effectivity of the argument.
This much is clear. It is a campaign that is very specific –not a war on drugs per se, but a war on crystal meth. It is a war focused on the liquidation of pushers and the principal lieutenants of the drug kingpins, who have been officially announced to be generally overseas and thus beyond the reach of the government. It is one of indeterminate duration, which raises the problem of how –or by what measure– victory can be achieved.
Most worrying of all is that the state has a monopoly on the use of force grounded on the expectation that it is used sparingly, responsibly, and with accountability. A very human factor is thus being ignored in the ongoing debate on the war on drugs. We have a police –and possibly, in the future– a military that has been institutionally-expected to be responsible and judicious in its use of force. Individual policemen, long circumscribed in their actions by strict rules on the acquisition, and legal scrutiny, of evidence, and who had clearly defined rules of engagement in terms of the use of force on suspects and the public at large, are discovering that the institutions that used to limit their actions are now neutralized. This feeling of power, this sense of immunity and impunity, this thrill from obtaining instant results, can be a kind of narcotic, too. Once experienced, it can become increasingly difficult to limit it to just the war on drugs, particularly when that war takes on the attributes of a larger war, whether to “reform,” or “rebuild,” or “reengineer” or “defend” the state against its “enemies” –as defined by the commanders.
Every society that has experienced political instability knows these are developments that can have an effect on institutions and society lasting generations –it took the Philippines a generation to wean its military and police from a similar experience during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos (1972-1986).
Manolo L. Quezon III giving a press briefing at Malacanang Palace in Manila.
RW: Why do you think that President Duterte has so much popular support? Do you think this support will diminish in a few years? If so, why?
MLQ: Every president who wins an election –even as a plurality victor– obtains a subsequent overwhelming level of public support in their initial months in office. The public, which previously supported different candidates, rallies around the victor and gives the winner a chance to fulfill the mandate given at the polls.
This is an observable trend in public opinion surveys. In June 2010, Benigno S. Aquino III who won with 42% of the votes, obtained an 88% trust rating. In June 2016, Rodrigo Roa Duterte who won with 39% of the votes, obtained a 91% trust rating. Both surveys (By Social Weather Stations) having a plus or minus 3% margin of error, the results can be said to be quite similar, if not identical.
The question is what the next survey in October and every quarter thereafter, will reveal. No one knows. If public trust remains high, it will further embolden the administration; if it plunges, it can embolden the administration to even more vigorously pursue current policies, knowing time is running out in terms of public support. However, whatever the results, it also suggests the administration knows it can count on a committed constituency of 39% to sustain itself –even now, despite every indication of public support being high, efforts to mobilize this constituency to mount demonstrations against the Senate (which conducted an inquiry into the drug war) are being made, which suggests some in the ruling coalition may have noticed a dip in public enthusiasm.
RW: Many people, among them officials, judges, journalists and politicians, seem reluctant to publically criticize this anti-drug push. Why do you think this is so?
MLQ: The answer is simple: fear. Fear of public opinion and more importantly, fear of the president. The president’s supporters are vocal, aggressive, plentiful and in some instances, organized. They swarm social media, and media sites both local and foreign. The President himself has a gift for targeting specific personalities who to his mind, represent challenges to his authority. This combination is formidable and considering the enthusiasm for the use of force, requires every individual venturing on expressing an opinion to consider the consequences.
RW: Vice President Leni Robredo has called for the rule of law to be applied in the hunt for drug pushers, but has not really come out to criticize the president’s anti-drug campaign. Do you think she could do more in terms of speaking out, or is that too politically risky?
MLQ: In the Philippines we elect our presidents and vice presidents separately, a practice that dates from the foundation of our modern institutions in 1935. It was felt important at the time that the potential successor of a president should have a clear, personal, mandate, too. However, this means every vice-president is viewed with suspicion by the sitting president, especially if they do not come from the same party. This suspicion is particularly intense not only because Vice-President Robredo defeated one of the paramount allies of the president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., but also, she was the candidate of the very administration the president’s ruling coalition (composed of the factions of former presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the united front parties of the Communists, and the political apparatus of the Marcos family) was meant to not only defeat, but permanently discredit as an ex-post-facto rehabilitation of themselves (the whole 1986-2016 era, with its periodic outbreaks of People Power, its anti-dictatorship constitution, and relative media independence and civil society participation, was a perpetual thorn in the side of those wanting a Marcos restoration, an Arroyo political rehabilitation, and a Ramos-proposed parliamentary system modeled on the one-party dominance of UMNO in Malaysia).
The other factor is that so long as the Vice-President is in office, an alternative leadership is available, and could potentially provide a rallying figure for those disaffected for whatever reason, with the present administration. However, the Vice-President herself seems to sense a long-standing rule in Philippine politics. No Vice-President has ever benefited from challenging the sitting president: the public expects the Vice-President, of whatever party, to cooperate with and serve, the sitting president, of whatever party. At the same time the civil society background of the Vice-President suggests she probably views it as a matter of civic conscience to have a seat at the table, in order to give voice to the constituency that elected her. A very delicate balancing act is therefore required, meaning she cannot be as vocal or critical as some of her supporters might want, but also, however cooperative she is, supporters of the president will always view her with suspicion. The wider public, on the other hand, will probably be more understanding in this regard.
She has from time to time issued gentle reminders about human rights, against the dictatorship of Marcos, and this includes the drug war. It would be fair to say however she is still finding her own voice in the midst of fast-moving events.
Brazil arrests: Is Daesh spreading its tentacles?
Some of the suspected terrorists arrested across Brazil.
This column was printed in Arab News on July 24, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The 10 Brazilian supporters of the terror group Daesh, who were arrested on Thursday across Brazil, didn’t seem to be prepared to launch attacks in the country. According to intercepted WhatsApp and Telegram messages sent to each other, the members were planning to take martial arts and shooting classes. One of them inquired online about buying an AK-47 rifle from a shop in Paraguay.
All those arrested appear to be Muslim converts, ranging in age from 20 to 50 years. A few of them knew each other personally, but most of them knew each other only through the Internet. A few of them ran their own blogs online where they praised Daesh and the various terrorist attacks the group claimed responsibility for such as the Orlando and Nice massacres. One of them, Ahmed Andrade Santos Junior, 34, from Joao Pessoa in the state of Paraiba, learned about Islam online and radicalized himself by regularly visiting extremist forums online.
O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper characterized him as a former Christian who was not at all religious and who used to box. His expounding of extremists ideas got him banned from a local mussala by the imam. He visited Egypt and was photographed there posing next to the flag of Daesh. When he returned to Brazil he openly defended Daesh and its dastardly acts.
Another suspect that was arrested was Vitor Barbosa Magalhaes, 23, of Guarulhos in greater Sao Paulo. He taught himself Arabic online and then got a scholarship to learn Arabic in Cairo for six months in 2009. It is there that he learned more about Islam and converted. His wife said in an interview that she believes him to be innocent and that he is non-violent.
Brazilian authorities are on full security alert ahead of the Rio Olympic Games, which open on Aug. 5. Already 6,000 National Force military troops have been deployed in Rio de Janeiro to ensure the safety of the expected 500,000 athletes and visitors. But many Brazilian commentators have noted that visitors to Rio have more to fear from being robbed or killed by local criminals, rather than be caught in a terror attack.
Brazilian Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes gave several interviews to the press on Thursday stressing the amateurism of the 10 suspects that were arrested, noting that two more suspects were still at large. He added that the deportation last week of the Franco-Algerian physicist Adlene Hicheur, who had been teaching at a university in Rio, but had been previously been sentenced to three years in prison in France in 2009 for allegedly planning terror attacks in France with Al-Qaeda operatives, was part of Brazil’s actions against possible terror threats before the Rio Olympics. The Brazilian Defense Minister Raul Jungmann also downplayed the threat of the arrested suspects, saying that they were “bat-crazy.”
President Michel Temer was reportedly unhappy with the comments of his two ministers. It is clear that Brazil, which has never endured terror attacks before, is being pressured by the United States and France to beef up its security for the Olympics, and to show it is doing something by rounding up Muslim suspects that support Daesh.
“Brazil is being pressured greatly by countries that are really targets and are demanding security guarantees. Brazil does not have expertise, but it’s making an effort. It has done an important monitoring of online chatter on social media,” said Paulo Velasco, a professor and researcher at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in an interview with Estado de Sao Paulo.
But some in the Muslim community here feel that the government is overreacting to please foreign governments and adding fuel to the fire of Islamophobia in Brazil, a largely Catholic nation. “The Muslim community supports the actions of the federal police as long as they are done with transparency and proof,” said Jihad Hammadeh, the president of the National Union of Islamic Entities in Sao Paulo.
“There is a growing Islamophobia, principally on the part of entities that should bring security to society,” warned Hammadeh, who is also an imam. “The National Union of Islamic Entities manifests its profound preoccupation with the recent events and reports that Brazilian citizens are associated with terrorism in Brazil. At the same time, we vehemently support the actions of the federal police for the investigation of these facts, but with concrete evidence and much transparency so that no injustice and persecution occurs against any citizen or group,” he stressed in a statement.
Hammadeh warned that the sensational fashion in which the arrests of the 10 suspects was being reported by some media outlets in Brazil is bringing terror to the population at large and discrimination to Muslims. Unfortunately this is true. Even the big media here treats the whole issue in a sensational way.
The 10 suspects are being held initially for a 30-day period. If authorities are unable to prove any of the more serious terror charges against them, they will be released and could be made to wear electronic bracelets to monitor their movements and banned from approaching certain public sites such as sensitive government buildings, military installations and stadiums.
I understand the worry of the Brazilian government to nip any potential terror threat in the bud before any attacks take place. Despite the comments of the two ministers stressing how amateurish the 10 suspects had been, one can never be too safe, as we have seen from the Orlando and Nice attacks that were undertaken by lone wolves that had slid below the radar.
The problem is that the Brazilian population at large still does not know enough about the real Islam, and therefore ends up believing that all Muslims are bloodthirsty terrorists. This is some of the real damage that Daesh is doing to the image and reputation of Muslims worldwide — damage that will take a long time to repair.