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.

Don’t let the terrorists win


By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday night that left around 127 people dead, and more than 200 wounded, was a bloodbath of epic proportions. The Bataclan Theater, where a heavy metal concert was in progress when terrorists burst in firing with semi-automatic weapons, was the scene of the worst violence. According to survivors, the gunmen ran in shouting “This is for Syria!” and continued shooting into the crowd of spectators, reloading their guns several times as they ran out of bullets.
A couple of suicide bombers also blew themselves up outside the National Stadium in northern Paris while France played a friendly match against Germany. Two loud bangs could be heard by spectators of the game, but except for a short pause the game itself continued and the crowd was not informed of what was happening.
French President Francois Hollande was watching the match in the stadium, but after the explosions outside the venue he was quickly whisked away by his security. French police say that eight attackers were killed or blew themselves up around Paris in Friday’s carnage.
A French journalist speaking on BBC TV noted that three things important to French citizens were attacked on Friday night: Sports, music and cafés. Some misguided people blamed the Paris attacks on the Syrian refugees that have been flooding into Europe.
US Rep. Jeff Duncan, a Republican congressman for South Carolina’s third congressional district, tweeted “How’s that Syrian refugee resettlement look now? How about that mass migration into Europe? Terrorism is alive & well in the world. #No.”
The Palestinian journalist, Rula Jebreal, rebutted this accusation, saying: “Even before victims’ bodies cool, disgraceful politician exploits horrific #ParisAttack to blame desperate refugees.”
Other commentators on Twitter were quick to blame a radical interpretation of Islam as the prime motivation for the attacks. Kenneth Rapoza, a journalist who writes for Forbes magazine, in a series of tweets said he believed that all single Muslim men should be kept out of Europe as a way of keeping potential terrorists out. Many regurgitated the old accusation that Saudi Arabia was in any way funding terror outfits. This is an absurd accusation that they regularly bring up.
While some misguided Saudis may have given money to and even joined terror groups, this certainly does not mean that the Saudi government aids any terrorist organization. This is a crazy anti-Saudi accusation with no evidence to back it up, and is thrown about by people whose anti-Muslim and anti-Arab feelings are kept barely under the surface.
The terrorists certainly want to scare the French government into stopping their bombing of Daesh positions in Syria and Iraq, and to make the French fear for their lives as they go about their daily lives doing the things they love most. Hopefully the Parisians will bounce back from these terrible attacks, and continue going to cafés, concerts and watch football games in stadiums as usual.
Likewise, I hope that French authorities and the public at large do not fall prey to anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hatred because of these attacks. France has the largest Muslim population of any European country, an estimated 4.7 million, or 7.5 percent of the total population. It would be a great shame if the French moved back on their great traditions of liberty, equality and fraternity. The openness and freedom of western societies is one of their biggest strengths, and it would be terrible if these were to suffer because of the attacks. It is obvious that security measures and intelligence gathering need to be beefed up in France, especially when it was only 10 months ago that the deadly attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket took place in Paris. But the spirit of freedom and welcoming refugees should not be lost in a fit of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hysteria unleashed by these latest attacks.
That is exactly what the terrorists want to provoke. Let’s not give them that pleasure, and instead show the world that Muslims and Christians, Arabs and Europeans, can live together in peace and respect. We owe it to the world and to ourselves.

Knee-jerk reactions to terrorism give false sense of security

THE HASTILY announced new security measures implemented soon after the bungled Christmas Day attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (photo at right) to bomb a Delta jetliner approaching Detroit, of not being allowed on international flights to use the bathroom one hour before landing in the US or having a blanket on one’s lap, were laughable despite the seriousness of the threat.

One does not deny that there are growing numbers of Muslims around the world who are being radicalized and pushed into hating and wanting to harm the United States and its citizens. This is due to two reasons: The rise of radical and ultra-conservative Islam, fueled in large part by Saudi money, and the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is amazing that so many Americans still insist in solely viewing American imperial adventures abroad as do-good missions, swallowing hook, line and sinker the lie that America just wants to improve things in the Middle East.

How can so many intelligent Americans not realize that in invading other countries, citizens of those countries just might harbor feelings of ill-will and resentment towards the invaders? It seems to be a logical and very human reaction to such a situation. Would Americans like it if Russia or China invaded the US to supposedly improve life for oppressed Americans? I hardly think so.

The chorus of criticisms of the Obama administration’s reaction to the failed bombing were right in pointing out the stupidity of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s comment that “the system had worked” when passengers and flight attendants overpowered Abdulmutallab, and in slamming President Obama’s seeming lack of concern when he initially sent out advisers deal with the aftermath before finally holding a press conference himself.

Napolitano had to quickly backtrack in the days following her inauspicious comment, especially when it became known that Abdulmutallab’s own father had gone to the US Embassy in Lagos, Nigeria, months ago to warn them about the radicalization of his son. An intelligence report was telegraphed back to Washington from the embassy and the Nigerian’s name was placed on a watch list of half a million people. But he was not put on the much smaller no-fly list, and worst of all his two-year US visa was not cancelled immediately as it should have been.

All passengers flying to the US have their names and passport details sent ahead when they check-in for their flights so that security checks can be made before someone believed to be a threat can even board a flight to the US. If his visa had been cancelled, and if the pre-flight verification system had worked, then Abdulmutallab would have never been allowed to board that Delta flight.

It was the fast thinking action of a Dutch passenger which saved the day on that Delta flight when he leaped across rows of seats when he saw that Abdulmutallab was trying to set off a bomb, and grabbed the explosive device out of his hands, thereby saving the lives of nearly 300 people. Alert passengers and flight attendants on flights to and in the US are indeed the last line of defense between a terrorist and their success or lack thereof in blowing up or crashing a plane.

The extra security measures announced this week for passengers flying to the US from 14 countries considered to harbor many potential terrorists with anti-US feelings, including Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Algeria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, seem unfair to me and are certainly not foolproof. Al-Qaeda or any other group could get around these new restrictions by recruiting disaffected American, French or British Muslims to carry out attacks on the US and Americans. Or they could use Indonesians, Indians, Filipinos or Chinese to carry out attacks.

Americans and Europeans have to think strategically and cleverly in how to outfox the terrorists. Installing those huge imaging full body scanners at all major European and US airports would be a good beginning. They have hardly been used so far because of objections from privacy activists. But in this age of underwear bombers, these scanners have become more necessary than ever. Who cares if security screeners can see the outline of your entire body? Especially when the images are not stored and are deleted soon after being taken? Objections that screening all passengers with these machines would take far too much time could be remedied by randomly screening a certain number of passengers from each flight, no matter their nationality.

In addition, Western countries need to be adept at sorting through and actually analyzing intelligently the avalanche of data and information that they are buried under on a daily basis. Firing a US intelligence analyst, who spoke fluent Arabic, just because he was gay, has to stop too. Apart from being homophobic and wrong, firing someone just because they are gay is silly when there are so few Americans who actually speak and write Arabic fluently.

Western countries have to think outside the box and at the same time support progressive and moderate forces in Muslim countries so as not to alienate whole nations. Pulling out of Afghanistan would be a good first step. That war is unwinnable, and it is a shame that hundreds of young Americans and Europeans have given their lives for a country that does not want their help and an Afghan government that is riddled with corruption. And that too just so that Obama and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown can save face and not be accused of abandoning the fight. Afghanistan was never a good fight to begin with. Bush got us involved in that, Obama should now get us out.

Living behind electrified fences in Brasilia

TWENTY years ago no one had them. Now practically every house in my Lago Sul neighborhood has them: Electrified wires at the top of fences carrying up to 8,000 volts each to deter thieves from breaking into them.

Brasilia has been suffering from a wave of criminality over the past few years. Part of this growth in crime can be blamed on demographics. The Distrito Federal, which encompasses the capital and all of its satellite cities and outlaying areas, has seen a boom in inhabitants. There are now more than 2 million people living in the Federal District, many of them poor people lured here by the country’s highest per capita income and hopes of striking it good by working hard or striking it rich through crime.

Sequestros relampagos, or lightning kidnappings, are sadly all too common in Brasilia. They occur usually when criminals overpower a person in their car, commandeering their vehicle and forcing the owner to come along for the ride. They usually steal whatever of value that they can find on that person, and often take them to an ATM and make them fork over their money.

A few weeks ago at a course I was taking I met a young and hip woman, a fellow journalist, whom I took an instant liking to. On the second day of the four-day course, I noticed that she wasn’t there and wondered where she was. She finally turned up at 10pm, only an hour before the end of that day’s session. She looked rather tired and harassed, but she smiled at me when I greeted her. What I didn’t know until the next day was that she had been a victim of a lightening kidnapping that night right in front of the building where our course was being held as she got out of her car.

“Two men suddenly appeared from either side and pointed guns at me,” recalled Rafaela as she later told the whole class about her ordeal. “They put me in the passenger seat and one of them sat in the back with a gun constantly poking into my waist.”

“I started crying and begged them to let me go. But they wouldn’t. We kept driving around and they even went to gas station and used my money to fill up,” she said. “They told me they were going to use my car in some hold-ups and then they would abandon it somewhere.”

“When they were tired of driving around they dropped me off and one of them had pity on me and even gave me R$5 so I could take a bus,” Rafaela explained.

They stole the R$200 (nearly $100) that she had in her wallet. Days after the crime, police had still not found her car.

Much of the crime in Brazil is fueled by the huge economic disparities between social classes. In the same day I can see the most expensive Mercedes and BMW cars on the streets of the capital, and then see barefoot children begging on the streets. The Lago Sul being the most upscale neighborhood of Brasilia means that the people here are threatened by this rising crime wave and feel they must protect themselves by having aggressive guard dogs and electrified fences that deliver 8,000 volt charges.

But the proliferation of cheap drugs, especially crack cocaine, is also responsible for the growing criminality. Just a few weeks ago a Bonnie and Clyde couple were finally arrested after stealing five cars in one night, killing one of the car owners, and wounding another. They had been stealing cars for nearly a year while high on crack. After driving them around, they would abandon them in an empty field on the outskirts of Brasilia and set then alight.

Many Brazilians are also upset with a justice system that they believe coddles criminals. The death penalty has been abolished and the most that a murderer can be imprisoned for is life, which usually means 30 years. Not only that, but prison officials regularly let out hardened criminals during the holidays to allow them to spend time with their families. Just this Saturday two such criminals let out for Easter were arrested in a satellite town after they robbed several stores and a car, and then rammed a police blockade set up to stop them. One of them was already in jail for three homicides! How can you let someone out like that and not expect him to drop immediately back into a life of crime? It’s what lots of Distrito Federal residents were asking themselves.

April 14 Update: My best friend from high school called me up yesterday as I was at my travel agent rebooking my flight to Saudi Arabia and told me that her house in Park Way (where I used to live until just two weeks ago) had been broken into during the Easter weekend while she and her family were away on a trip.
“They broke in through the back and stole everything! Two TVs, two computers, and some gold bracelets I had,” she told me. “And we have to wait until Wednesday for fingerprint experts to come and search for prints as there are only two of them for the whole Distrito Federal!”
In the meantime, she, her husband and her kids were not to touch anything until then. “The house is a mess, they opened all the drawers and threw everything around.”
The latest I heard from her later that afternoon was that the police were there again checking the scene of the crime. She told me that there was a possibility that convicts let out of the Papuda jail for the Easter holiday may have been responsible for the break-in and robbery.
Crime has gotten so bad in Brasilia that the local government recently ordered the arrest of 200 criminal suspects for questioning. That action does not seem to have stopped the crime wave. More police on the streets and tougher jail terms are probably the only things that will make a dent in this crime wave. Meanwhile, I understand why inhabitants of the Lago Sul hide behind electrified fences and ferocious guard dogs.

US, Saudi Press Write About Fuad Al-Farhan

THE WASHINGTON POST and the Saudi newspaper Arab News both ran stories today about the jailed Saudi blogger Fuad Al-Farhan, who has been jailed ever since he was arrested in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Dec. 10.

Both stories quote Fuad’s wife, who says she and other family members have had no contact since he was arrested. The Ministry of Interior spokesman would only say that he was not arrested on suspicion of supporting terrorism.

That is unlike the nine reformists who were arrested in February 2007 after they sent a petition to King Abdullah asking for a crackdown on corruption and a greater political voice for the average Saudi. They too are being held in a secret detention center in Jeddah, and none of them have been officially charged with any crime or put on trial.

One of the nine detained is Saud al-Mokhtar Hashemi, a medical doctor who used to host a weekly political discussion group in his home before he was arrested. I interviewed his sister last year in Jeddah and she vehemently denied some reports that her brother had allegedly supported insurgents in Iraq. These accusations surfaced after he raised donations at his weekly discussion groups for refugees in Iraq and Palestinians.

Ironically, it is one of these imprisoned reformists that Fuad visited in detention a few weeks ago, and then wrote about on his blog, that may have triggered his own arrest. Fuad told several people who know him only days before his arrest that a Minsitry of Interior official had warned him that he would be arrested for writing about those reformists and supporting them.

It is just so sad that in 2008 the Saudi government is still seemingly more afraid of intellectual debate with democratic reformists, than it is of Islamist extremists who are ready to blow up as many people as it takes for them to achieve their political ends.

What Did Cheney Talk About With King Abdullah?

THE LIGHTNING trip that US Vice President Dick Cheney made to Riyadh to hold talks with Saudi King Abdullah just two days after Thanksgiving left all of the American media in the dark and consequently atwitter.

“What did Cheney talk about with King Abdullah, that was so important that he flew 14-hours each way to just spend eight hours on Saudi soil?” many journalists said, scratching their heads.

Officially, the talks encompassed the escalating civil war in neighboring Iraq, the mess in Lebanon, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian feud and Iran’s expansionist ambitions in the region.

The Washington Post’s Robin Wright appeared on MSNBC to talk about the trip and said she was still trying to crack what the other, secret, topic that was discussed. Since no press corps was taken with Cheney on his plane, and no press conference was held in Riyadh, the press remained in the dark. And as you may know, journalists don’t like being kept in the dark.

I talked to a Saudi source of mine to try and find out what was discussed at that meeting, and my source said that there were two major areas of concern to the US: The ongoing battle within the Saudi royal family between the powerful Interior Minister Prince Naif and King Abdullah, who are not seeing eye-to-eye, and the continued threat of a terrorist attack on Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia’s main oil processing plant in the Eastern Province.

Prince Naif has been an arch-conservative in the ruling family, keeping a tight reign on all security aspects of the Kingdom and being against women driving and giving more political rights to Saudis. This has placed him at odds with King Abdullah’s reformist agenda, through which the first municipal council elections were held last year for the first time in over 40 years, and four reformists were pardoned after being jailed for more than a year and being found guilty by a court of law of promoting dissent in the country.

The threat of a terrorist attack against Abqaiq is not being overstated. Al-Qaeda linked terrorists used two cars laden with explosives last February in an attack on the Abqaiq facility, managing to explode their munitions and damaging the oil processing plant. It was repaired quickly as Simon Henderson wrote in a report for the Washington Institute entitled “Al-Qaeda Attack on Abqaiq: The Vulnerability of Saudi Oil.”

“But Washington must be keenly aware that Saudi oil production remains extremely vulnerable to sabotage. A Saudi police raid on a terrorist hideout last year reportedly uncovered copies of maps and plans of the prestigious, newly producing field of Shaybah. At particular risk also must be the estimated twelve thousand miles of pipeline in the kingdom,” he wrote.

Perhaps more interesting and alarming, is the report by Paul Rogers entitled “Abqaiq’s message to Washington which appeared in November on the website.

A professor at Bradford University in England, Rogers says that the February attack on Abqaiq was more serious than previously reported, and that the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is based in neighboring Bahrain, has been recently tasked to provide security for the Kingdom’s largest oil exporting facility of Ras Tanura which is on the Gulf coast.

“The new development at Ras Tanura – even if it is a naval presence rather than ground troops stationed on the kingdom’s soil…has a wider value to the Bush administration as it tries to gain greater support from Arab states in the western Gulf in its ongoing confrontation with Iran,” writes Rogers.

As Rogers rightly points out, the attack on the Abqaiq facility in February has given the US the chance to once again be directly involved in Saudi security, something it has not been militarily been able to do ever since most US troops were withdrawn from the huge US base outside Riyadh in 2002 and moved to Qatar and Kuwait.

It also allows the US to send the clear signal to Iran that it is still very much present in the Gulf countries and is willing to deploy its military muscle to protect them from any Iranian threat.

But don’t be fooled by the lack of visible US troops in Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of US security and intelligence personnel have been reportedly working quietly behind the scenes for the past three years helping the Saudis deal with their ongoing crackdown on local Al-Qaeda terror groups. Just this week, the Saudi government announced that 139 terrorists, who had been planning suicide attacks, had been arrested around the country. I’m sure that Americans helped in these arrests, and have helped foil many other attacks by Al-Qaeda.

So, when I read whiny neo-cons in the US complain that Cheney was just kow-towing to the Saudis by flying to Riyadh last week for talks, they couldn’t have been more wrong. The stakes are high in the fight against terror and Al-Qaeda, and never more so than in Saudi Arabia.

Latest Tweets

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Newsletter Subscribe