Brazil arrests: Is Daesh spreading its tentacles?

Some of the suspected terrorists arrested across Brazil.

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.

Beware of the scaremongers

The beach at Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro.

The beach at Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro.

This column apppeared in Arab News on June 05, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Brazil is constantly being criticized by outsiders who love poking holes in the reputation of the country. With record unemployment, two digit annual inflation, the worst performing economy in the first semester of 2016, the ongoing impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, and ongoing outbreaks of dengue and Zika viruses, there are plenty of negative things to criticize in the country.

But it is when exaggeration gets the best of people’s criticism that one cannot stand still and not rectify their wildly inaccurate utterances. Two recent pronouncements come to mind: One was a petition that was signed by 150 prominent doctors and scientists warning that the Rio Olympics in August had to be canceled or moved elsewhere because of the risk of the Zika virus being picked up by participants in the sporting event and then spreading the disease around the world. The other pronouncement was that the violence in Rio de Janeiro was so acute that foreigners should just stay away from the Olympics if they wanted to remain alive.

The signatories of the petition said that the Zika epidemic was very severe in Rio de Janeiro; that the disease was recently found to be more dangerous than previously thought, and that Rio’s public health infrastructure was already overwhelmed and would not be able to deal with the larger number of cases during the Olympics.

The World Health Organization did not agree with the dire warnings, saying, “Canceling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus.” It noted that Brazil was among 60 countries where the virus was present, and that there was no public health justification for postponing or canceling the games.

The worried doctors and scientists claim that the 500,000 foreign tourists expected at the Rio Olympics will be perfect carriers of the virus back to their home countries. But a Cambridge University professor disagreed in a BBC interview, saying that August is the coolest month in Rio due to it being winter in the Southern Hemisphere, which will consequently cause a decrease in the reproduction of the mosquitoes that transmit the virus.

While Rio de Janeiro has an unfortunate reputation of being violent and crime-ridden, the security situation has greatly improved over the past 10 years, with heavy police patrols in the tourist areas such as Copacabana. Even so, the International Business Times ran a scare-mongering story this week claiming that 41,000 deaths a year in Brazil are due to firearms, and that 21 cities out of a recent study of the 50 most violent cities in the world are in Brazil. These figures may be true, but it is also true that most of this violence is being done by poor people against other poor people.

To beef up security in Rio during the Olympics, the Brazilian government will be deploying 38,000 military personnel to patrol the most dangerous parts of the cities and an additional 47,000 security forces from the civil, military and federal police as well as Civil Defense and National Force members.

Brazil is not a paradise of non-violence and vibrant health, but it is not the hellhole that many foreign observers make it out to be. It would be a shame if their negative scaremongering manages to scare away tourists that are thinking of visiting Brazil during the Olympics or afterward. It is a beautiful and friendly country that deserves to be visited by as many foreigners as possible.

48 hours in Rio: A diary

A view of the patio of Santos Dumont Airport
in Rio de Janeiro. (All photos by Rasheed Abou-Alsamh)

Friday, July 10

I check-in at 7:54 am at Brasilia International Airport for my 9:45 am flight to Rio de Janeiro on Webjet. I don’t check in any luggage as I only have hand-carry, and the check-in attendant is kind enough to give me an exit row seat that has more legroom.

There are no crowds at the Webjet counters, unlike at TAM and Gol, the two much bigger rivals of Webjet, so checking-in is a breeze and actually enjoyable.

I buy some magazines and the O Globo newspaper at the airport bookstore and then am tempted to buy myself a nice black leather bag to put my camera and notebook in. It costs R$620 (approximately $310) and is well worth every penny as the leather is soft and beautiful.

I go through security without setting off any bells or whistles and walk down to my gate. Sitting there trying to read my newspaper, I am interrupted several times by various airline officials making extremely loud announcements on the PA system. All Brazilian airports are like this, but the incessant blaring of information is annoying. I don’t think they’ve ever heard of the silent airport concept, where announcements are only made silently, in writing, on screens.

On board I find I do have more legroom (seat 12J) on this Boeing 737-400. They serve us a bread roll sandwich of smoked turkey and cheese accompanied by a chocolate-covered cream puff. The flight to Rio takes only an hour and a half, and the descent into Santos Dumont Airport is breathtaking.

We descend through thin clouds covering the mountains surrounding the Cidade Maravilhosa, and turbulence shakes us a little as we fly over high rises and swerve over the bay to land on one of the shortest runways in Brazil. The pilot slams on the brakes in order to stop before we can overshoot the 1,050-meter long runway and end up in the water.

We walk to the original terminal building of Santos Dumont that was finished in 1947. Work on the airport itself started in 1934 and it received its first flight from Sao Paulo in 1936. The lobby of the arrival terminal has beautiful murals depicting the history of flight and the legacy of Santos Dumont who was the first Brazilian to ever fly. He is also credited with inventing the first wristwatch.

At the exit of the terminal I buy a roundtrip taxi ticket to Copacabana and back (R$36 each way). If you fly into Rio’s International Airport, which is much further away, the fare will be R$80 one way into the city.

Twenty minutes later and I am at my oceanfront hotel, the Classic California Othon Hotel (Av. Atlantica, 2616, Copacabana, tel. +55-21-2132-1900, Built in the 1940s, the 12-storey hotel has surely seen better days. The sign outside claims it has been classified a four-star hotel, but inside it looks like a three-star hotel fallen on bad times. A piece of plastic sheeting has most of the lobby cordoned-off because it is being renovated, and only one of the hotel’s two elevators is working.

Check-in is relatively quick though a bit chaotic as the reception desk is swamped by guests arriving, leaving or complaining about something. I’m upgraded to an ocean-view room for free, but find when I reach my third-floor room that my view is completely blocked by a large leafy tree. My room cost R$300 ($150) a night.

The room has two single beds, what looks like original wood flooring, a small balcony and a white marble bathroom. The bathtub looks really old and dirty. There are rust marks on it and the marble sink top has little craters in which puddles of water accumulate when you use the sink. The remote control for the television is missing and I have to call the front desk several times before an employee brings me one half an hour later.

Instead of this hotel, I would recommend staying at its sister hotel, the Lancaster Othon Travel Hotel, which is at the beginning of Copacabana (Av. Atlantica, 1470, tel. +55-21-2169-8300). I stayed there in January with my partner and we had a separate living room and a large balcony. And the view from our 10th floor room was stunning: We could see the entire stretch of Copacabana beach.

It was now lunch time and since my friend Ricky was busy getting ready for his show later that night, I decide to take a cab to the Rio Sul shopping center in Botafago, a short ride away through a tunnel. There I grab a quick lunch at McDonald’s (my Big Mac combo meal cost R$15, or around $7.50) before going to see the latest Sandra Bullock movie. My ticket costs R$17 ($8.50).

After the movie I stop at Figaro Café and have a yummy pear and strawberry tart with a cappuccino (R$18). I then browse guidebooks on Rio at the large Saraiva bookstore and buy three: A Time Out guide, a Wallpaper City Guide and Gay Guide to Rio. The Time Out one, not surprisingly I guess, is the most informative and useful.

After a short rest back at my hotel, I hail a cab on the street and head to the Cacilda Becker Theater in downtown Rio. The good thing about this city, unlike Brasilia, is that taxis are everywhere and easily flagged down. But I must warn foreigners that taxi drivers in Rio like to take advantage of tourists by acting ignorant and taking longer routes than necessary to arrive to your destination.

This happened to me twice over the weekend. The taxi drivers did not do it in a mean or scary way, but in typical friendly Brazilian fashion, which made it bearable but no less annoying. Going to the theater, my driver talks incessantly to his wife on the phone informing her he is coming straight home to take a bath and then go out with her after he has dropped me off.

“I’m in Copacabana!” he keeps yelling into his cell phone even when we are making our way through the evening rush hour traffic in Botafogo and then the Centro towards our destination.

He claims he doesn’t know where the theater is located and we actually drive by it. I order him to backtrack, which he does reluctantly. He still can’t find the theater, so, exasperated, I tell him to drop me off and I walk quickly to try and find it. A few phone calls to the theater to get directions and I finally arrive and buy my ticket (R$10) to see Ricky’s show “Empire: Love to Love You, Baby”.

My evening ends with me having beef stroganoff and rice at a restaurant across the street from the theater with Ricky and his friends after the show.

Saturday, July 11

After breakfast at my hotel I take a taxi and pick up Ricky near his apartment in Copacabana. We’re going to the Rio Fashion Mall in Sao Conrado, a neighborhood separated from the rest of Rio by a huge moro or small mountain. To get there we take the coastal road, which has beautiful scenery, reminding me of the coastal road in California between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

There is huge favela, or slum, that overlooks Sao Conrado. This neighborhood has a small beach and today we see many surfers out on their boards taking advantage of the choppy waters. The Fashion Mall is upscale and rather empty so early in the morning. Ricky hasn’t had breakfast yet so we stop at a café. Afterwards, I buy a nice silver ring from my favorite Brazilian jeweler Guerreiro and some nice plates from Image Presentes.

Ricky gets a message from people he’s supposed to meet for a working lunch. They are going to produce a show he’s organizing for Brasilia’s 50th anniversary next year. I drop him off in swanky Ipanema for his lunch meeting and I meet up with our friend Ana Claudia and her mom at the Shopping Leblon. We have a very leisurely lunch at Dom Delicia (tel. +55-21-930-18310), where I have a juicy steak with potatoes gratiné. The meal, including dessert, soft drinks, a bottle of wine and service comes to R$75 ($37.50) a person.

The mall is nothing special except for the large Travessa bookstore ( that has a huge selection of books, music, videos and magazines. I buy a book by a French academic (translated into Portuguese) about the clash of civilizations and the latest issue of Vanity Fair magazine to read about the last days of actor Heath Ledger. There is a huge Starbucks coffee shop in the mall, and the line of patrons waiting to order their drinks is long. The American coffee chain has relatively few branches so far in Brazil, with none yet in Brasilia.

At five-thirty I say goodbye to Ana Claudia and her mother to take a cab to the apartment of my childhood friend Fares El-Dahdah. He’s now a professor of architecture at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and a devotee of Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, the planner and architect respectively of Brasilia. I haven’t seen him for 25 years, the last time having been at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1984 when he was studying at RISD and I at Swarthmore College.

He’s in Rio for the summer, organizing a huge retrospective on Lucio Costa’s life and work that will be shown in Brasilia next year. I’m dropped off in front of his building that faces the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a large lake in the middle of Rio. I’m not sure this is the right building until I notice a striking display of flowers through the open window of a first floor apartment. Fares suddenly appears at the window and calls down to me. After buzzing me in, we have drinks and reminisce about our years together at the American School of Brasilia.

We take the Metro to the center of Rio. I’m going with Fares to watch Ricky’s show for the second time. There are more people here tonight at the Cacilda Becker Theater, a small experimental theater that opened in 1975 and is named after a famous stage actress who died years ago after suffering a stroke while onstage. There are huge black and white photos of her in various poses at the entrance of the theater, which lend a campy but glamorous tone to the venue.

After the show, Fares takes Ricky and I out to dinner at a restaurant in Ipanema. We all have caipirinhas, the Brazilian drink made from sugar cane alcohol. I choose a tangerine flavored one, which is so sour that I have to add some artificial sweetener to it.

I take a cab back to my hotel and my driver acts dumb, claiming he doesn’t know Copacabana well or my the location of my hotel.

“You are a Carioca, aren’t you?” I say in irritation. “You should know where my hotel is.”

Sunday, July 12

After a leisurely breakfast in the dining room of my hotel I head off to meet Ana Claudia and her mother at the end of Copacabana near Ipanema.

We walk from Copacabana to Ipanema beach but the wind is so strong there that we only stay a few minutes and head back to Copacabana. Since it is nearly midday by now we hail a taxi to take us to the Aprazivel restaurant (Rua Aprazivel 62, Santa Teresa, tel. +55-21-2507-7334, that is in the hills of Santa Teresa in a residential area. The fare going there is around R$39, but that is because we get lost in the winding roads of the area and actually drive past it before backtracking and finally finding it.

Ana Claudia tells me she had to make our reservation a week in advance as this restaurant is quite popular with both Brazilian and foreign tourists. Hidden behind a stonewall with only a small sign, one has to descend very steep stone steps to get to the level where the restaurant is. This place is definitely not wheelchair accessible!

We sit outside in a charming courtyard under a tree. The service is friendly but a bit lackadaisical. The menu has traditional Brazilian dishes with a slight exotic touch. I have a deliciously tender steak with a puree of potatoes as my main course. Be warned though, this place is not cheap. Expect to pay around R$142 per person ($71) for a meal that includes starters, a main course, wine, dessert and coffee.

Our lazy lunch lasts around three hours, after which I remind my dining companions that I need to catch my flight back to Brasilia that evening. Our waitress gracefully offers to call us a cab and tells us when it is there. This time the fare is a bit less as we are not lost.

The charming courtyard of Aprazivel restaurant in Santa Teresa:

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