Sport Rio 2016 Olympics

Wednesday 26 July 2017

Kidnap fears for families of athletes at Olympics as IS release propaganda videos

Gymnastics training
Gymnastics training
Security expert Fred Burton says kidnapping is a problem. Photo: Maryna Marston/Square Earth Studio

Ryan Nugent

A world terrorism expert fears that the families of Olympic hopefuls will be a target for kidnappers in Rio - with local authorities unable to cope with the numbers in the city.

Ireland are set to have 77 athletes representing the country this month - but anti-terrorism chief at worldwide security experts, Stratfor, Fred Burton thinks groups will have to be cautious travelling in support of their relatives.

Mr Burton, a former special agent within the US Counterterrorism unit, told the Irish Independent that kidnappings are far more likely than acts of mass terrorism from the likes of Isis.

Isis have begun releasing propaganda videos in Portuguese ahead of the Games and 10 people were arrested last months for online plots of terrorism at the Games.

However, Mr Burton has said that the likes of Irish boxer, Michael Conlan - who recently said he feared for his family's safety in Rio - has a right to be worried.

Problem

"They've got a tremendous kidnapping problem and crime problem, so they've got their hands full across the whole security scope not only terrorism but just general crime," Mr Burton said.

"Yes it should be (a worry for them). You have an ongoing kidnapping there of someone associated with Formula 1. I would be concerned about that and I don't blame the athletes.

"I think it's going to be a challenging event for the local authorities - it's going to exceed their capability," he added.

The security expert expects Irish athletes to be managed well by security teams within the Olympic Village and believes they will be safe once they follow the guidelines they're instructed with.

"It wouldn't surprise me to see additional kidnappings and I think that will give people cause for concern as to whether or not they want to travel.

"The international athletes are going to be protected well, but their family members, friends and loved ones are typically outside that protective bubble," he added.

Mr Burton added that if an Irish tourist is kidnapped the family will have to decide whether to get the government involved or go directly to a kidnap and ransom insurance company - but they will have strong government support.

He advised families to avoid visiting favelas in Rio: "You have a high kidnap ring and criminal gangs there," he said.

"Stay away - you are presenting yourself as a target of opportunity, why would you want to do that? It's low hanging fruit.

"You're dealing with low-level street thugs - the hostage could be beaten, could have handcuffs tightened . . .

"You could have a gun pointed at your head or a knife.

"The psychological fear of death is always in the room," he added.

Having protected athletes at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996, Mr Burton thinks that cooperation between international intelligence agencies means a very sophisticated plan would be needed to launch an attack on athletes or the Olympic venues.

He said the group recently arrested for terrorism plots in Rio had "aspirational" rather than "operational" plans.

"The group was planning or wanting to do something rather than moving forward," he said.

"That's a perfect example of how good intelligence works.

"As a result of that, you pick up the ten suspects and they have social media, Twitter and Facebook friends and it might spin off dozens of other related cases.

"The benefit Olympic events have, you have tremendous international assistance at these special events," he added.

Irish Independent

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