RIO DE JANEIRO — Khaled Hussein Ali lives in Sao Paulo and allegedly works for al-Qaida. But this does not mean he is a terrorist.
In fact, no one in Brazil is considered a terrorist.
Even as the world has cracked down hard on terror, some countries have refrained from adopting anti-terror laws. Their stance has racked up consternation at a time when terrorism is a global concern, especially with Brazil now set to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.
"Officially, Brazil does not have terrorism inside its borders," wrote Lisa Kubiske, then the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Brasilia, in an August 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks. "In reality, several Islamic groups with known or suspected ties to extremist organizations have branches in Brazil and are suspected of carrying out financing activities."
Several countries in Latin America resist anti-terror laws because they still hold fresh memories of state dictatorships that killed or spirited away thousands of political opponents in the 1970s and 1980s.
"These are places that had civil wars ... where the country ripped itself to pieces trying to fight terrorist organizations," said Princeton law professor Kim Lane Scheppele, who studies the global war on terror. "Once they got out of it and managed to put in place a democratic system, they said 'never again.'"
Countries such as Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina only recently adopted weakened versions of anti-terror laws focused on money laundering to avoid being blacklisted by the world's financial system. Just one suspect has been prosecuted under these laws to date, in Argentina.
In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff was herself arrested and tortured for her militancy against the military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985; former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was arrested by the same regime, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the president before him, was exiled for his activism.
The lack of political will to go hard on terrorism frustrates American officials, as is suggested in cables released by WikiLeaks. For example, Brazil does not consider Hezbollah, Hamas or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to be terrorist organizations.
"The government of Brazil remains highly sensitive to public claims suggesting that terrorist or extremist organizations have a presence or are undertaking activities in Brazil," said one cable sent in 2008 by former Ambassador Clifford Sobel.
An official at the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia declined to talk on the record.
Brazil's stance on terrorism is reflected in the case of Ali, a Lebanese-born resident of Brazil.
In 2009, the FBI contacted Brazilian federal police about Ali. He appeared to live a quiet life, running an Internet cafe to support his Brazilian wife and daughter. But Ali was also broadcasting anti-American content in Arabic from a password-protected website and could be connected to a terrorist group, federal prosecutor Ana Leticia Absy told the AP in a statement.
Ali was arrested in April on hate speech charges and held for the maximum 21 days. The contents of his computers were investigated, but he wasn't found to be a high risk. So he was released, Absy said, in May 2009.
Alexandre Cassettari, the Sao Paulo federal judge who authorized his release, said in a statement that Ali didn't have a criminal record and his influence and control were being monitored. He is still being prosecuted on charges of racism, racketeering and inciting criminal activity.
Later that year, the head of the Brazilian Federal Police's intelligence division alleged during a congressional hearing that Ali was linked to al-Qaida. In that deposition he concluded that Ali "was the global head of the Jihad Media Battalion and had performed duties for the terrorist group, ranging from propaganda, to logistics, recruitment and other activities."
Government officials, however, continue to deny the presence of alleged terrorists in the country.
The irony is that Brazil's winning bid in 2009 for the Olympics was based in part on a pitch for the country as untouched by international terrorism.
"We don't have attacks, we don't have bombs," then-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said at the time.