Brazilians Accused of Plotting Terror Attack

The suspected IS-sympathizers were charged with attempting to form a terrorist cell and carry out an attack in Brazil.
Taciana Moury/Diálogo | 27 July 2018

Transnational Threats

The investigations of Brazil’s Federal Police during Operation Attila led to the complaint filed by the Office of the Attorney General. (Photo: Brazil’s Federal Police)

The Office of the Attorney General of Brazil (MPF, in Portuguese) filed a complaint with the Federal Court of the state of Goiás, in midwestern Brazil, against 11 nationals linked to the Islamic State (IS). Nine detainees will face justice, as two were found mentally incompetent. The suspects are charged with promoting extremist ideas and attempting to recruit jihadists through Facebook and WhatsApp.

Brazilian prosecutor Divino Donizette da Silva filed the complaint in April 2018, built on Operation Attila (Operação Átila) of Brazil’s Federal Police (PF, in Portuguese). The complaint included messages the accused exchanged in 2016 and 2017 discussing plans to form an IS cell in Brazil, carry out a terrorist attack with explosives, and join IS in Syria. PF began its investigation after Spain’s Civil Guard identified Brazilian phone numbers in three WhatsApp groups named: A Bullet in the Head of Every Apostate, State of Islamic Caliphate, and In the Path of Allah We Go.

According to attorneys Mariana Costa Guimarães and Carlos Almeida Sales Macedo of the Office of the Federal Public Defender, who represent most of the defendants, the evidence in MPF’s complaint is weak. The complaint, the defense argues, is limited to WhatsApp message exchanges, which do not constitute concrete acts of promoting terrorism as required by the indictment, nor do they prove any stable or permanent link between the defendants.

The complaint was the second filed in Brazil after the passage of Law No. 13,260 of March 16, 2016, which criminalizes terrorism and its funding. The first complaint was filed during PF’s Operation Hashtag in July 2016. Authorities arrested 15 people accused of planning a terrorist attack during the Rio Olympic Games. The Federal Court of Curitiba convicted eight people. The Regional Federal Tribunal upheld the decision June 19, 2018. The sentences for promoting terrorism were the first in a Latin American court of law.

According to professor Peterson Ferreira da Silva of the Brazilian War College, Donizette’s complaint fails to show the formation of a terrorist cell. “A terrorist cell is an organization that already counts with task distribution, something operational. They were at a much earlier training stage and trying to carry out an attack,” he said.

For Peterson, who is also a researcher at the Brazilian Army Center for Strategic Studies, Brazil is not a target of terrorist attacks. “Brazil is geographically distant from major conflict centers; its national culture fosters dialogue among religions and in the foreign policy field. In addition, despite its continent-wide size, there’s only one language spoken: Portuguese,” he said.

Peterson, however, warned that Brazil could be the scene of an isolated act. “No country in the world is completely safe and free from terrorist attacks,” he said. “It isn’t academically possible to outline a profile of these new terrorists, what matters is to fight the root of the problem, which is the spread of violent extremism.”

Brazil’s Federal Police, the leading agency in the national fight against terrorism, stays alert about extremist groups’ influence in Brazil. (Photo: Brazil’s Federal Police)

The professor believes Brazilian public security agencies effectively prevented sympathizers from forming a terrorist cell. “It’s a warning that we must continue to invest in the fight against terrorism,” he added.

Security agencies’ permanent monitoring

Brazil’s PF, the leading national agency in the fight against terrorism, stays alert about extremist groups’ influence in Brazil. PF reports to the Extraordinary Public Safety Ministry, created in February 2018. According to O Globo newspaper, PF monitored about 600 Brazilians with suspected links to terror groups in 2017.

Some groups, PF believes, may be involved in drug smuggling or trafficking to finance extremist acts abroad. According to the Brazilian newspaper, PF’s Counterterrorism Division (DAT, in Portuguese) has a database of 110,000 names of alleged terrorist group sympathizers. The database is regularly updated with information from intelligence services of the United States, Israel, and other countries actively engaged in the fight against terrorism.

According to officer Dennis Cali, PF’s general coordinator of Intelligence, DAT focuses on investigations and counterterrorism operations. DAT, the officer told Diálogo, has intelligence agents embedded within all PF units for regional monitoring.

The Institutional Security Cabinet (GSI, in Portuguese) carries out interagency preventive operations developed with agencies of the Brazilian Intelligence System (SISBIN, in Portuguese) to identify potential terrorist threats. “Although Brazil is not a target of violent terrorist acts, and does not integrate the security forces that directly fight major terrorist groups in the world, no country is entirely free from the possibility of attack,” GSI’s Communications Office said.

GSI coordinates surveillance through the Brazilian Intelligence Agency, SISBIN’s central authority. “The goal is to identify pockets of radicalism, share information to help understand the phenomenon, and identify concrete evidence of crimes associated with terrorism. The data is then passed on to the Federal Police for their investigation,” GSI’s Communications Office indicated. “This is a joint effort of all the intelligence agencies that make up SISBIN.”

PF and GSI stressed the importance of Law No. 13,260 in the fight against terrorism. “The terrorism classification guarantees legal certainty in quantification and investigative tools for police to operate,” Cali said. “The law reaches not only those who commit violent acts, but also those who promote and provide financial or logistic support to terrorist organizations,” GSI’s Communications Office said.

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