As the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, held from June 12 to July 13 2014, has come and gone, the country’s logistics and infrastructure need to remain key topics of discussion. However, the same amount of attention has not been paid to a subject that is crucial to the success of one of the greatest sports events on the planet: security. More specifically, how are Brazilian public authorities dealing with the possibility of terrorist attacks in the country? Is this hypothesis being seriously considered?

The prevalent attitude in recent Brazilian governments has seemed to systematically deny the mere possibility of placing the issue on the political or security agenda, perhaps for fear of “attracting attention” from terrorist groups. It is interesting to see how, instead of “inflating a threat”, which can be understood as an opportunistic approach commonly used by decision makers to exaggerate a threat to national security in order to influence public opinion, allocate resources to specific ends, and change the policy-making process, Brazilian leaders tend to “deflate threats” by underestimating the real danger posed by terrorism to national security.

From time to time it is possible to hear voices in the Brazilian government strongly rejecting the hypothesis of a terrorist attack against Brazil or Brazilian interests, basing their assumptions on the country’s peaceful tradition, its historical respect for the international principles of self-determination and non-intervention, and the absence of terrorist attacks in the country. The lack of any terrorist incidents or credible security threats during the 2007 Pan American Games and the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, both held in Brazil, contributed to reinforcement of that perception. However, if the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States have taught us anything, it is that no country is immune to terrorism. Neglecting the terrorist phenomenon, especially when combined with lack of knowledge regarding its essential features, is the worst mistake that policy makers could possibly make.

First of all, it is important to emphasize that “terrorism” and “terror acts” refer to different phenomena, even though the terms are commonly used as synonyms. For operational purposes, “terrorism” can be understood here as the systematic and intentional use of violence—or the threat of use of violence—against civilian populations (including non-combatant military personnel) and targets in order to pursue political objectives. Although the concept of terrorism still remains extremely controversial, the definition presented here involves two basic elements. First, the essence of the terrorist activity consists of the use of violence or the threat of its use, which excludes strikes, protests, and other peaceful demonstrations. Second, regardless of the tactics employed, the goals of the terrorist activity are always political: to topple a government, to influence and alter government decisions, to separate a territory from an existing political entity, to replace an established order with a new social or political structure, to segregate people seen as different based on racial or ethnic characteristics, or even to promote an ethnic cleansing, among other objectives. The concept of political objective is thus comprehensive enough to include ideological, libertarian, and religious motivations. In the absence of a political objective and a continuous and systematic line of action, any violent action directed toward civilian populations should not be considered terrorism, but mere terror acts, criminal acts, or even acts of insanity. Having this distinction in mind is crucial for those charged with countering the terrorist threat at all levels, as the design, implementation, and execution of policies and programs can differ greatly according to the nature of these two phenomena.

However, the characteristics of the terrorist phenomenon are even more important that its definition. Its first trait is its indiscriminate nature. Anyone can be a potential target or an enemy of a terrorist cause, regardless of gender, age, or role in the society. Unpredictability is another symptomatic feature. As a rule of thumb and with notably rare exceptions, it is not possible to know beforehand when and how a terrorist attack will take place. Violent actions that occur suddenly instill widespread fear and feelings of continuous vulnerability in the population. For this reason, terrorists seeks to sow panic in a society and to exploit its population’s relative fragility, its constant state of anxiety, and the intense reaction provoked by attacks against civilian targets. Another common feature is the brutality and the ferocity of terrorist acts, as well as the extreme gravity of their consequences, measures deemed necessary to draw attention to their cause and, thus, to its success. It is not an exaggeration to say that terrorism can be considered a form of psychological warfare whose aim is to undermine opposition to their final objectives. Terrorists do not necessarily intend to kill their victims; they have a target audience that reaches far beyond the immediate victims. They wish to shock, intimidate, and terrify the population, leaving them in a state of permanent insecurity, tension, and fear. Therefore, according to this distorted terrorist logic, any challenged government or authority, under pressure from a shaken public opinion, would be more prone to negotiate and make concessions.

These characteristics and the huge amount of attention dedicated to an event of the magnitude and international reach of the FIFA World Cup make it an extremely attractive target for terrorist organizations. Historical records indicate that in such sporting events the primary target of terrorist attacks are foreign delegations, rather than the host nation and the local population. This was, for instance, the logic behind the attack carried out by militants from the Black September group at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, when two members of the Israeli Olympic team were killed and nine others were taken hostage. The disastrous rescue attempt—which showed a remarkable lack of preparation on the part of the German police and intelligence service—resulted in the deaths of all of the hostages and made it clear that the fight against terrorism must not only be a permanent state policy rather than a transient one, but must also involve international cooperation.

On the occasion of the “Munich Massacre,” as the episode came to be known, neither the German government nor the country’s nationals were the main target of the terrorists, a fact which did not prevent the attack from happening. The same logic applies to the less-known episode regarding the January 2010 shooting of the Togo national soccer team bus that took place as the team traveled through the Angolan province of Cabinda on its way to the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations tournament. Three people were killed in the incident. Rather than targeting the Angolan population or the local government, terrorists from the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), a group promoting the independence of that region, selected a foreign target, hoping to draw international attention to their cause. Likewise, supporters, players, and delegation members present at the 2006 Germany World Cup, the 2010 South Africa World Cup, and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, lived under the threat of terrorist attacks, which fortunately did not take place, perhaps because this possibility was seriously considered by local authorities. During the South Africa World Cup, for example, the al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) issued statements warning that suicide bombers might target the England versus United States match, among other threats, and during the World Soccer tournament in Germany, the German Federal Crime Office (BKA) categorized 21 out of the 64 matches as being under “high risk” of being attacked by terrorists, due to concrete threats disseminated over the internet through homepages of extremist organizations.

On the other hand, besides the low level of risk perception regarding the extent of the terrorist menace, other factors contribute to increasing the Brazilian vulnerability to this kind of threat. One is the length and porousness of the national borders. Brazil borders all but two of the twelve countries of South America (the exceptions being Chile and Ecuador). Brazil shares half of its 17,099 km (10,625 miles) border with the world’s three largest cocaine producers, Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru, most of it in sparsely populated areas in jungle regions of difficult access to intelligence, police, and security forces. With Bolivia alone, Brazil shares a 3,421 km (2,126 mile) frontier, longer than the 3,162 km (1,965 mile) United States-Mexico border. Furthermore, the Brazilian Federal Police (PF) is currently estimated to deploy fewer than 1,000 agents to monitor this huge area. This situation facilitates not only the illegal entry of persons across the borders, but also international drugs trafficking and weapons smuggling.

In addition, terrorist incidents close to Brazilian borders are apparently not new or mere isolated acts. In 1992, a car bomb struck the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing 29 people. In 1994, at least 96 people were killed when a bomb exploded at the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) headquarters, a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. During most of the 1980s and 1990s, Peru and Colombia were ravaged by political violence brought about by perhaps the two most widely known terrorist groups in Latin America, the Shining Path (“Sendero Luminoso”) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), respectively, which together were directly responsible for the death of more than 350,000 civilians. Despite their current relatively low to moderate operational capabilities, these groups are still operating in those countries. The Shining Path is staging a comeback, fueled by the resurgence of cocaine manufacturing in Peru, while the FARC are still a very active group and have something between 7,000 to 10,000 fighters.

Indubitably, terrorism is far from being just a memory from a distant past in South America. Rather, intelligence reports from several sources consistently detect signs of the existence of clandestine activities conducted by individuals and cells linked to Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaida, and Jama’at al Islamiyya in the region known as the “tri-border area” (TBA), where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet, in spite of the Brazilian government’s repeated assertion that there are no terrorists in the region. The TBA was already known to the intelligence community as a center for a wide range of criminal smuggling enterprises, from drug trafficking to money laundering and tax evasion, trade in pirated goods and document fraud to weapons smuggling. Now, the region is also known in the intelligence community as a potential safe haven and breeding ground for terrorists, an arena for Islamic radicals to pursue fund-raising, recruiting, money laundering, plotting, propaganda, and other activities in support of their organizations. The possibility of an expansion of the terrorist potential in the region towards Brazil increases concerns regarding the establishment of strategic links between organized crime and terrorist groups in the area, as this would create a serious threat not only to Brazilian security, but also to regional security.

Moreover, violent acts perpetrated by football hooligans and criminal gangs during large sporting events— which would be an example of “terror acts” rather than “terrorism”—cannot be ruled out. Even more important and dangerous is the threat posed by the so-called “lone wolves”, a term used to designate individuals who commit violent acts arguably on behalf of a political/ideological/religious cause and in support of some organization, but who do not belong to an extremist group or network. Even if they have some sort of network affiliation, they operate individually, both in the planning and the execution of the attack, supposedly without any guidance and material assistance from an organized group. Lone wolves usually employ small arms and light weapons, which can be acquired virtually everywhere, or simple improvised domestic explosive devices against easily accessible low security targets. In the last three years, several lone wolf incidents have been recorded and many of them have made headlines. For instance, claiming that he was reacting against the “Islamification” of Europe, Anders Behring Breivik bombed government buildings in Oslo, Norway, killing eight people, and then killed 69 more people in a mass shooting in 2011. In 2011, Wellington de Oliveira, who had turned to Islamism two years beforehand, killed 12 children in an elementary school in Realengo, Rio de Janeiro, for no apparent reason. Even though the police were not able to find concrete evidence of a political or religious motivation for the attack, texts found at the perpetrator’s house indicate that he was obsessed with terror acts and with Islam, and that he should find a way to seek revenge against non-believers. In 2012 the French-Algerian Islamist terrorist Mohamed Merah killed seven people in Toulouse and Montauban, France, arguably on behalf of Islamism and as a protest against the French involvement in the “war on terror” in Afghanistan. In April 2013, three people were killed and some 264 others were wounded when a domestic bomb exploded during the Boston Marathon. According to the FBI, the perpetrators, the Tsarnaev brothers, were motivated by extremist Islamic beliefs. Finally, it must not be forgotten that during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, a terrorist bombing left two people dead and over 100 injured. The perpetrator, Eric Robert Rudolph, who was connected to the Christian Identity movement, a racist, anti-Semitic, anti-gay, and anti-abortion group that believes white people are God’s chosen people, was caught in 2003, but his outrageous act had already marred the legacy of the games.

These examples illustrate the fact that, besides being even more unpredictable in their essence than terrorist acts conducted by organizations, terrorist attacks planned and executed individually are sometimes considered the biggest threat to a country’s security. As police forces and intelligence services worldwide are systematically monitoring the activities of terrorist organizations, many terrorist groups have encouraged and emboldened the adoption of “individual subversive strategies” or “lone wolf strategies.” These approaches have the benefit of not being influenced by time or hierarchy constraints inherent to terrorist groups that delay or prevent their decision-making process. Furthermore, one of the “advantages” of such a strategy is that a terrorist organization can always publicly disassociate itself from a lone wolf when a particularly abhorrent act is committed. However, although this phenomenon must not be ignored, it should be put in perspective. First, even though lone wolves do present unique challenges, history shows that they have always existed, so this phenomenon is nothing new. Second, not every individual who decides to engage in extremist political violence has the skills needed to become a lone operative. Intelligence reports estimate that only a tiny fraction might possess the combination of technical skills and personal characteristics such as adaptability, will, intelligence, and resourcefulness, necessary to succeed. Third, no one is born a terrorist and terrorist acts do not materialize out of nothing. Lone wolves have to learn their “craft” and to develop their skills; they also have to plan their attacks and acquire materials, explosives, weapons. They cannot delegate these tasks, which means that they are also susceptible to detection, just like full-fledged terrorist organizations.

The potential for synergies between organized crime and terrorists in Brazil is not a mere possibility but a tangible probability. As a consequence, like the 2014 World Cup, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games might represent unique opportunities for terrorists wanting to spoil the world’s foremost sports events. The PF, the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (ABIN), and the intelligence service of the São Paulo State Military Police (PMESP) had found some evidence that the country’s largest and most organized criminal organization, the First Command of the Capital (PCC), an extremely violent mix of a Mafialike group and drug cartel, might have been planning to carry out a series of terrorist attacks during the World Cup, granted that the government fulfilled its promise to transfer members of the gang to federal maximum security prisons spread all over the country. In addition to serving as a political statement, such an attack also serves as an opportunity to demonstrate its power. In the future, in the face of such threats, what should Brazilian authorities do? First, it is essential to effectively consider security the top priority, not only during such events, but as a permanent process throughout the years prior to the event. The first step is to provide a supporting legal framework for the fight on terrorism. There is no legislation covering this type of crime in Brazil, and an anti-terrorism bill currently being discussed is being severely criticized for its alarmingly vague language and for its timing, which seems to be inspired more by political than security factors. Critics suggest the bill’s real objective may have been to dissuade new massive waves of protests against the government during the World Cup, similar to those that severely shook the country during the 2013 Confederations Cup. Second, the government must establish a common proactive and cooperative security agenda with international policing and judicial cooperation organizations such as Interpol, Europol, and Eurojust, foreign police forces and intelligence services, and other segments of civil society, such as religious and political institutions. Third, Brazil needs to be thoroughly prepared to deal with the terrorist menace through (a) a careful formulation and execution of a detailed risk and crime prevention program, (b) rigorous and specific anti-terrorism police training, (c) continuous monitoring of terrorist groups’ activities, (d) cooperation and integration between different police forces and bureaucratic institutions at national, state, and city level, and (e) acquisition of modern and specialized technologies. A Special Security Secretariat for Large Events was created to coordinate police, intelligence, and even military activities, which will involve over 100,000 forces, including police and intelligence officers from a number of different countries, backed up by unmanned aerial vehicles, helicopters, and planes. A central operations center was set up in Brasilia to monitor emergencies and detect potentially dangerous situations. Special anti-terrorist forces were set up and are already on the alert. PCC leaders and extremist organizations operating in the TBA are under surveillance, even though ABIN intelligence reports mistakenly categorize these threats as “low-risk”. This will be an entirely new experience for a country that does not have an integrated national public security policy.

Finally, it is imperative for the Brazilian government to understand that its people expect the authorities to comply with their duty to protect by not neglecting the terrorist threat. It is in this sense that decision-makers must proactively work to ensure the success of one of mankind’s greatest celebrations in all its aspects. After all, the nonoccurrence of terrorist acts in Brazilian territory until the present moment does not represent a guarantee that it will never happen, especially when one considers that Brazil is striving to become an emerging world power, a country with a bigger influence on global issues and in consequence more responsibilities and, perhaps, more enemies.