Why Aren't There More Terrorist Attacks in America?

Even though the US has plenty of mass shootings and right-wing extremist violence, what most of the world calls "terrorism" is rare. We asked an expert to explain.

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Jun 7 2017, 8:08am

(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

It's only natural after the horrific London Bridge attack this weekend, in which three men seemingly motivated by radical Islamist sentiments plowed a vehicle into pedestrians on a crowded street before initiating a stabbing spree, that many Americans would feel deeply unsettled. Terrorism has loomed large in the national imagination for well over a decade, and this attack, coming so closely on the heels of two other high-profile incidents in the UK, suggests the European country most like America is struggling to cope with extremist violence. It doesn't help that Donald Trump and others in his still-new administration are actively using this and other recent attacks to stoke anxiety. Whether White House fear-mongering is an offshoot of sincere concern or a deliberate ploy to exploit a tragedy to bolster its agenda—namely the "TRAVEL BAN"—the fact is that a political institution (the presidency) that traditionally advises Americans to stay calm is now echoing fears that what happened in London could happen at home, and soon.

Americans have plenty of legitimate reasons to fear violence, of course. Their country is consumed by mass shootings and increasingly by right-wing extremism targeting abortion providers, people of color, and Muslims, among others. But when it comes to large-scale acts of violent terrorism perpetrated by radicalized Muslims—which is what many Americans are really thinking of when they talk about "terror attacks"—the US has actually endured far fewer incidents than Europe in recent years. Since the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, France, at the start of 2015, Western Europe has witnessed more than a dozen major terrorist attacks attributed to or inspired by the Islamic State and similar virulent sects, tragedies that killed hundreds. Meanwhile, the United States—arguably a juicier target for radical Islamists angry at the American footprint in the Middle East—has suffered fewer than a dozen such attacks since September 11, 2001.

To understand why America has seen relatively little extremist Muslim violence in recent years compared to Europe—and whether that trend will hold as terrorism possibly becomes the new normal in the UK and across Europe—VICE reached out to Jeffrey Ringel. A 21-year veteran of the FBI, where he worked a number of terror-related cases, Ringel is now director at the Soufan Group, a prominent security intelligence firm. Here's what he had to say.

VICE: The simplest explanation for why acts of mass violence perpetrated by radicalized Muslims are relatively rare in the United States is that we have better borders. Distance and aggressive security stop people from going abroad to get radicalized and violent radicals from coming here. What do you make of that explanation?
Jeffrey Ringel: That is a valid argument. The US has had fewer people travel overseas to Syria or Iraq to fight. But if we look back on this spate of recent attacks [in Europe], a lot of these attackers have been native born. A lot of these people tend never to have gone somewhere [else]. They tend to be second-generation who've been instructed [in radical hate] over social media. And some places of worship have people who are spreading the message of hate and urging people to attack.

That's another common argument: that America just doesn't have as many radicalized Muslims because we do a better job of integrating, or at least not alienating, people than Europe, which has a terrible track record on that count. Do you think that's actually true?
Yes. Many people who come here realize that we're a nation of immigrants. In France, you're a Frenchman if you're fifth generation, maybe. But in America everybody's new, and everybody's different. It's easier to find more people like yourself so that you don't feel like you're left out, and therefore there's less alienation. Some people do get alienated. But generally speaking, there's less ammunition to say, "I was picked on."

But like you said, alienation and radicalization still happen here. Do you think America does a better job of catching and dealing with people on the road to violence than Europe, or is there just so much less of a problem to begin with?
Being an FBI veteran, I'm going to say we do it better. But actually in Europe they're all independent, sovereign countries, and they all seem to have their own take on privacy. We're one country operating under federal laws, which allow more information sharing between the states.

That said, we have had our misses. Omar Mateen, [the Pulse Nightclub shooter], there was quite a bit of investigation on… but the guy never crossed the line. So by the Constitution you have to stop the investigation. And then one day he goes operational. That's a problem: How many assets and resources can you dedicate to following people and for how long, legally, before you have to say we don't like what he's saying but he's not breaking the law so we can't do anything?

When people slip through the cracks, we're ultimately like Europe, though, right? We have plenty of soft targets to attack, and plenty of ways for people to get even nastier weapons.
The London attack was [relatively] ad hoc. It was [perpetrated with] a vehicle and knives, which is almost impossible to stop unless somebody has pre-warning. But in the United States, you'll see when you go to sporting or concert events the visible presence of armed law enforcement. That helps discourage those kind of attacks, because the assailants will realize that they're going to be confronted sooner by somebody with firearms who can possibly stop them.

What do you make of President Trump's response to the London attack, which seemed to urge people to fear a similar one in the US and imply citizens won't be safe from terrorism without his travel ban on people from six Muslim-majority nations and refugees?
Donald Trump is political. He'll try to do anything he can to get his point across. If we look at recent attacks [in Europe or America] and the countries identified in the ban, how many attackers came from countries of that origin? The government has the right and responsibility to screen people before they come in. But the countries selected were easy countries, and we've had more problems from other countries that were not identified.

Do you worry at all that Trump's rhetoric and the spike of hate speech and crimes against Muslim Americans it seems to have engendered could lead to a greater sense of alienation, jeopardizing one of the forces that's helped to keep the risk of Islamist terrorism here low?
The isolation some people feel when they're not working together as a country but as a small group is going to foster segregation. That makes it difficult for people of different religious beliefs or colors or sexes or political thoughts to come together and criticize the people [espousing radical and violent agendas] who are wrong in everybody's eyes but who some people tend to follow because, you know what, they kind of like a little bit of their message.

Everybody's a keyboard warrior, and that's part of the problem, too. Everybody sits behind a keyboard, spews a little hatred, and it encourages people not to work together.

Ultimately, what's your takeaway for people who might be worried about the threat of radicalized Muslim terrorism in America, especially in the face of such dense coverage of the London attack?
They don't need to be afraid that there's going to be a massive increase in Islamist attacks. They always have to be cognizant. [But] if they're afraid of an Islamist attack, they should be afraid of a workplace violence attack and of being at the wrong place when a robbery goes down, too.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.

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