How The U.S. Has Avoided Brussels-Style Terrorist Attacks

It's not only advanced intelligence gathering that has kept the homeland relatively terror-free

Mar 23, 2016 at 12:51 PM ET

The terrorist attacks that killed dozens of people in Brussels this week could have happened anywhere in the world. Bombs detonated in crowded, public places by unassuming terrorists with the desire to inflict indiscriminate bloodshed.

Yet, with a few notable exceptions, these types of coordinated attacks rarely happen in the United States, the sworn enemy of groups like ISIS, which claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s carnage in Belgium. According to current and former FBI officials, that’s not entirely due to luck.

There are several reasons the homeland has remained relatively terror-free since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, despite being the top target for many Islamic extremist groups. None of those reasons have to do with those organizations’ lack of trying, officials told Vocativ.

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They warn, however, that the U.S. is not immune to attacks similar to the deadly campaigns in Brussels and in Paris last November, and they insist the U.S. remains a prime target for jihadis. Each of those interviewed said it was less about a magic silver bullet that could thwart terrorists, and more to do with advanced intelligence gathering, and how that information is used within those agencies tasked to prevent attacks.

“The main thing is that most of the other countries, like Belgium, don’t have anywhere near the capability to process intel to identify these [potential terrorists] and stop them before they carry out an attack,” said Gregory Vecchi, a former FBI agent who spent 18 years investigating both international and domestic terrorism before retiring in 2014. “It’s never 100 percent. But it’s unbelievable the number of attacks that we thwart through our intel agencies.”

Since 9/11, there have been dozens of domestic terrorist plots according to several reports, including one from the right-leaning Heritage Foundation that cited more than 70 attacks and potential attacks within the U.S. alone. Those include plans to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge and several other locations in New York City, the 2009 plot to blowup a skyscraper in Dallas, and a plan to detonate a bomb at a 9/11 memorial event in Kansas City in 2015.

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The FBI has agents across the world who gather intelligence and then analyze and organize it, and share it with other federal agencies also tasked with preventing terrorist attacks. This streamlined approach to information sharing didn’t exist prior to 9/11. If it had, Vecchi said, that attack might never have happened.

“Before 9/11 we’d collect this data and intel, put it in a folder and nobody would ever see it again. Agencies didn’t communicate with each other,” said Vecchi. “Nearly all of the 19 hijackers in 9/11 were on no-fly lists but the the [Federal Aviation Administration] didn’t have access to the list. So they let them on the plane.”

Now, he said, every agency is using the same system to track potential terrorists and monitor chatter for potential attacks. They share information and sources, which allows them to identify and track potential terrorists.

“The idea is to target these guys on non-terrorism charges—building a suicide vest, or chatting about terrorism. Not every criminal is a terrorist, but every terrorist is a criminal … and we’ve been pretty successful in going after these people and getting criminal convictions before the criminal carries out a terrorist act,” Vecchi said. “If they’re locked up, you prevent the attack.”

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Todd Hulsey spent 16 years with the FBI, much of which was spent working on national security. He agrees that how federal agencies gather and organize intel—and share it with local law enforcement agencies like the New York Police Department—is a key component in keeping the country relatively safe compared to others, but said there remains a hyper-vigilance within the FBI to defend against terrorists that hasn’t wavered since 9/11. “People don’t notice it. It’s not visible. But it’s there,” he said. He also believes there are other, cultural and societal factors that make the U.S. different from other countries.

“We still are, for the most part, a melting pot,” he said. “If you look at places like France, Islamic immigrants have been marginalized in society. They’re put in camps and ghettos. We don’t marginalize [immigrants] the way they do in other countries. These things play a big role in radicalizing people.”

Ostracizing immigrants and refugees creates an animosity towards the establishment, said Hulsey, that can make people prime candidates for radicalization. Vecchi agrees, likening the situation to how prison gangs in the U.S. recruit new members.

“When someone feels like they’ve been treated badly by someone, that causes negative feelings to the group or country. At that point they are very open to being enticed into joining groups like ISIS,” he said. “They feel marginalized. And they blame society, and the government and the police. They are very open at that point to be influenced by a terror group…the commonality between all of them is they feel mistreated—it’s like a recipe for creating a terrorist.”