Moroccan national Rachid Rafaa, previously under house arrest in French Guiana, has gone missing, and authorities believe he could have crossed the border into Brazil. Rachid has known ties to al-Qaeda and suspected ties to the Islamic State.
Brazil’s O Globo reports that Rachid escaped his house arrest and was last seen in Saint-Georges, a small town in French Guiana. There is little evidence pointing to him having remained in the French territory, but no concrete evidence that he is in northern Brazil. Brazilian authorities are on high alert, however, as Brazil has become a popular target for jihadist propaganda due to the ongoing Olympic Games being held there.
“It is something of national interest… all police are looking for the suspect,” Charles Correa, the head of the Integrated Operations Center for Public Security in northern Oiapoque, told reporters. “This is a sensitive border, especially at a time when France is the target of terrorist attacks.”
The border between Brazil and France is one of the easiest to cross into a western European nation, he argued, “just use a speedboat.”
Police are also looking for Rachid in Sao Paulo, where he allegedly was “making contact” with a woman. He has no known ties to Rio de Janeiro.
Rachid, O Globo reports, was arrested for attempting to aid the activities of al-Qaeda. The newspaper noted that there was evidence linking him to the Islamic State but did not specify. He was placed under house arrest in May 2014, which would have been after the split between ISIS and al-Qaeda. Numerous international jihadis have been found to have ties to both, however, often being radicalized by the speeches of al-Qaeda members and Islamic State propaganda videos.
The town of Saint-Georges, with a population of little over 5,000, has mobilized its police, with the French reinforcing the Armed Forces presence in the area.
The potential of a convicted jihadist loose in Brazil is alarming for officials currently supervising the security of the Summer Olympics, as the Islamic State has explicitly threatened the Games. A group calling itself “Ansar al-Khalifah Brasil” pledged allegiance to the Islamic State shortly before the Olympics began — the first such group to do so from South America. Islamic State members also began to use the secure messaging application Telegram to send messages encouraging jihad in Brazil in Portuguese.
Shortly after the Ansar al-Khalifah pledge, Brazilian officials arrested 13 men comprising a would-be terror cell, who were caught discussing how to buy AK-47s online to use in an attack on the Olympics. Two of the men had served sentences for murder and completed them, being set free afterward. One of those arrested was a minor. Another ran a prolific sharia blog discussing the virtues of the Islamic State, including the relationship between “martyrdom” and a romantic afterlife in “Jannah,” or heaven.
In June, State Department officials reiterated that they possessed evidence that the Islamic State, among other jihadist groups, were active in Brazil. Hezbollah maintains an especially robust presence in the region, particularly in a location known as the “Tri-Border Area” connecting Brazil to Paraguay and Argentina.