RIO DE JANEIRO, May 20, (AP): After months of trading messages on social media praising violence by the Islamic State militant group, Leonid El Kadre de Melo said it was time to act. “I want to be clear,” he wrote in a message recovered by Brazilian authorities on the eve of the Rio 2016 Olympics. “My intention is to put together a real and concrete group” to launch attacks.
While de Melo’s defenders portray that message as a bit of social media bravado, it alarmed Brazilian officials worried that the global Games could prove a target for terrorists. De Melo and 12 other men were detained in July during a high-profile sweep under a new law that greatly widened the scope of what could be considered terrorism in Latin America’s largest nation.
This month, he and seven other of the men were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 6 years to nearly 16 for de Melo, labelled by authorities as the group’s leader. The first — and so far only — use of the law has been controversial in Brazil, a nation that has never suffered a known Islamist terror attack and in a broader region where they have been extremely rare.
Former Public Security Secretary Jose Vicente da Silva said the quick reaction of officials “was the only thing that could stop such a crime,” and said the sentence was justified given the threat the men posed.
But others suggested the law goes too far. “The sentences appear to be exceedingly harsh given what is known about the would-be plotters,” said Robert Muggah, research director at Igarape Institute, a Rio-based think tank that has a specialty in crime analysis.
When Congress passed the anti-terrorism law in 2016, Brazilian authorities were under enormous pressure to show they could handle security risks during the Games, particularly amid a spate of “lone-wolf” attacks in Europe and the United States by radicalized young men claiming allegiance to — but with few prior contacts with — the Islamic State.
Many Brazilians saw little need for such a law: The country of 200 million people has seen little open friction involving its 1.5 million Muslim citizens. In recent decades, intelligence agencies have expressed concerns about possible terrorism activity in Brazil’s triple border area with Paraguay and Argentina, but residents there wave aside the concerns, saying the region is simply a melting pot of cultures.
The country accounted for only three of the tens of thousands of foreign fighters for the Islamic State group counted in a 2015 study by the Soufan Group, a private intelligence firm. A more visceral worry for many was possible misuse of anti-terror laws in a country and region that suffered through oppressive conservative dictatorships that killed thousands of South Americans.