Police officers are the front lines in domestic counterterrorism

American cops are "force multipliers in counterterrorism," says Fred Burton, one of the world’s foremost authorities on terrorists and terrorist organizations


Editor’s Note:

Editor's Note: I don't typically write in "first person" on this Web site. This is, in fact, the first time I’ve ever done so. One of the great pleasures of my job is that I get to talk to heroes every day. From cadets to Chiefs of Police, from the rookies to the recently retired, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with hundreds of outstanding police officers. But I don’t often get to speak with one of our country’s heroes who has hunted (and bagged) international terrorists. Fred Burton has been there and done that, and a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend some time with him. What follows are a few of the highlights of that conversation. I will refer back to this interview at times in the future — my intent here is merely to relate some of the wisdom he shared with me during our talk, the sum of which is this: American cops are on front lines against potential terrorist attacks on our soil.

— Doug Wyllie, PoliceOne Senior Editor 

Some PoliceOne Members already know a little bit about Fred Burton through his regular columns on current counterterrorism activities both here and abroad.  For those of you who don’t know his work, a little bit of historical context will go a long way.

Fred Burton began his law enforcement career in a way many police officers can relate to — a young man with the desire to help people in his community became a cop in Montgomery County, Maryland, which borders our nation’s Capitol. In the first chapter of his book, GHOST: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, he writes, “I was a Maryland cop. I protected my community. I loved law enforcement, but I wanted something more.”

He applied for federal service, and the Diplomatic Security Service of the U.S. Department of State offered him a job. Before he began training for the DSS in November 1985 — around the time terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise liner — he had never even heard of the organization. By the time he retired from DSS, Fred had helped create (and then lead) the agency’s Counterterrorism Division. “Very few people have ever heard of us,” Fred writes. “My training for that work was as a street cop back when terrorism was in its infancy.”

He orchestrated the arrest of Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He investigated cases including the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the killing of Rabbi Meir Kahane, al Qaeda’s New York City bombing plots before 9/11, and the Libyan-backed terrorist attacks against diplomats in Sanaa and Khartoum. He has served his country in ways that may remain secret forever. 

Today, Fred Burton is widely considered to be one of the world’s foremost authorities on terrorists and terrorist organizations.  As Vice President for Counterterrorism and Corporate Security at STRATFOR, a global private intelligence company, Fred Burton leads a team of experts (with input from human intelligence sources around the world) that analyzes and forecast the most significant events and trends related to terrorism and counterterrorism.

To this day, he carries with him at all times a list of about a dozen names — handwritten into a small journal — of known actors, unidentified suspects, rogue intelligence operatives, and terrorists’ aliases or code names. When a bad guy is caught or killed, the name is scratched off the list. The number of names varies, he says, “depending on the speed of justice in the world.”

The NYPD Beat Cop Concept
Most police officers have a pretty good handle on where the “high-value targets” are in their patrol area. Many even think beyond the typical list of power plants, transportation facilities, malls, hospitals, sports complexes, rail yards, radio towers, and public buildings. But it goes way beyond even that. Burton says that agencies and officers should be aware of where the offices are whose CEOs or managers are particularly high-profile, or unexpectedly low-profile. He says that targets could be among the most innocuous-looking structures and areas.

“It’s still surprising to me the kind of blank stares I get at times — officers may know that they patrol an area that has a nuclear reactor, or that there’s a large dam. But they may not know, for example, that large oil, chemical, or gas lines run through their areas or that your suspicious person call in the vicinity of a location may be connected to those kinds of places.”

Further, Burton advises that police officers get to know the locations of the synagogues in their area of responsibility, as well as the mosques. “Have you made any effort to reach out to the Imam of the mosque or the Rabbi of that synagogue and establish some dialogue? What I sense — what I know and I’m sure you know too — is that cops are responding to their radio calls and they don’t have a lot of opportunity to get out and just develop some very granular contacts in the community. But these could turn out to be valuable information conduits.”

If you have a good avenue of communication within your various communities, he explains, they’re more apt to bring more information to your attention. “Say, for example, if they have someone — whether it’s in the jihadi community or in the right-wing Jewish extremist community — that they want to talk to you about...” Burton offers, and then allows that sentence hang in the air, unanswered.

Individuals working day-to-day in ethnically-owned private small business — from the deli to the hot dog cart to the self-storage businesses — are always good conduits of information if you really know your area of responsibility. When he visits police agencies around the country, he asks for a show of hands among the gathered group: ‘who here knows those business owners, or even where the synagogues, Jewish day care centers, or mosques are located?’ 

“You’ll get a hit or miss response,” he laments. “In an audience of 100 you might get 25 hands. Whether folks don’t want to respond, or what, I don’t know. But I get a sense there’s still not a lot of understanding of your different communities... where you can play a significant role in the war on terror.”

Information about all of these types of people and places has meaning — specifically it can mean the difference between an attack that’s carried out and one that’s prevented.

It’s the old beat cop principle that New York City is so famous for — knowing everything that is happening on your beat. “You really do need informational resources in the community as well as good observation skills to know what changes are taking place.”

Who’s Watching the Watchers?
Most pre-operational surveillance — such as sitting on a park bench, taking a picture, or shooting scenic video — is innocent-looking in nature and generally does not break the law. The real problem with this isn’t the legality of the activity, it’s that in too many cases, virtually no one is taking note that it’s happening. Burton says that often, no one has the mindset to wonder, ‘Why is this person taking a picture of this building?’

Worse, among those who do make the observation, few will take the time to write it up in an intelligence report and make sure that it gets to the local Joint Terrorism Task Force for further investigation. “There may be three or four of those things that happen across a region,” Burton says, “but no one would know to make an analysis because no one bothered to send the sighting up the line.”

According to Burton, there’s a prevailing expectation among too many cops that someone else is doing that, but in fact, nobody is. “I think street cops think, ‘Well, the FBI must be doing that.’ And that’s just not the case. You know, the FBI — especially today’s FBI — they have an operating manual that’s about the size of an old Bell telephone book. They’re under a lot of bureaucratic requirements and scrutiny as to when they can talk to people and when they can’t. It takes a lot of supervisory approvals and so forth. So, your average street cop or your average detective has much more probability of running into a real terrorist than your average federal agent does. They also have the ability to just do more intelligence collection through interfacing within their area of responsibility.”

Burton contends that the thwarting of a terrorist attack is more probable at the street level than at the federal level. “I spend a lot of time with these folks across the country and I talk to a lot of different people and do a lot of speaking engagements with counter-terrorism agents. Even in the post-9/11 environment with DHS and your joint terrorism task forces with intelligence division agents and detectives — everybody kind of senses that somebody else is doing this stuff. In reality, they’re not.”

Jails: The Jihadist Jack-in-the-Box
Where would a jihadist go to cultivate new recruits? Where would he find recent converts to Islam who could easily be radicalized? Where are there large numbers of young men who feel disenfranchised and prone to violence? You’ve probably already guessed the top two places (hint: they’re not colleges and mosques). Cartels and gangs on the streets, and their related populace who live behind bars.

“You have a couple of environments that are very conducive for the recruitment for jihadist criminal activity. Obviously, one is the prison systems — more at the local and state level than the federal system because the federal system usually has folks that are put away for a good number of years due to federal sentencing guidelines. So, in essence, at the local and state levels where you see more of the recruitment of gang members as well as you get the converts to Islam, you get the captive audience that has to join the group for self-preservation phenomena.”

Burton says that there are some outstanding programs underway in some state and local corrections agencies that are beginning to develop actionable intelligence on these prisoners to garner how they’re doing recruitment. Despite these excellent efforts, there remain some “huge intelligence gaps” due to the difficulty of getting that kind of data and making sense of it. But strides are being made by extending some of the intelligence gathering activities devoted toward drug cartels and their criminal cadre who occupy our prisons.

“The other phenomena — and we see it especially when it comes to the Border — is that relationship between your various cartels and your criminal enterprises, your street gangs. Whether it’s MS-13, Barrio Aztecas, or a lot of smaller ones, you know there has to be an interface between the cartels that are pushing the dope north and the flow of weapons, stolen vehicles, and cash going south. You have that hand and glove interface there.”

Case in Point: A Successful Model
At the center of the successful take-down of a grassroots jihadist cell in May are some of the very things Burton discussed with PoliceOne:

1. among these homegrown terrorists, only one was reared as a Muslim — the other three converted to Islam in prison
2. relatively ordinary local synagogues were among the terrorists’ intended targets (the other target was a U.S. military transport aircraft)
3. one well-placed informant in a mosque was the conduit of information to law enforcement
4. the would-be terrorists used cameras bought at Wal-Mart to photograph their targets, doing their pre-operational surveillance in the open
5. vigilant observation of the suspects — and information being quickly passed to federal agents — led to the successful prevention of an attack

Of course, we’re talking about the Newburgh plot. In STRATFOR’s excellent analysis of the failed plot, Burton and his team write that “with an informant in place, the task force in charge of tracking the Newburgh plotters most likely constructed an elaborate surveillance system that kept the four men under constant watch during the investigation and sting operation, using technical surveillance of their residences and potential targets.”

Having the ability to closely observe the group’s communications and movements, STRATFOR estimated, law enforcement officials were able to gain control over the group’s activities to such a degree that they felt confident in letting the plotters plant a 37-pound inert explosive device in the trunk of a car outside of Riverdale Temple and two similarly harmless bombs outside the Riverdale Jewish Center, a synagogue a few blocks away.

There’s one other element to the Newburgh plot that Burton discussed with PoliceOne, and it’s as esoteric as it is concrete. The suspects told their arresting officers that they “wanted to commit jihad” because they were “disturbed about what happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Going Home... Eyeing the Horizon
Burton was recently invited to do a presentation on terrorism for his old PD, Montgomery County Police. “I guess it was about 250 police officers, and they had invited the U.S. Park Police and ICE and ATF... it was good going back and having an opportunity to talk to my old department.”

Among the things Burton said to the group is something he tries to talk about wherever he goes — that police officers are so focused on the day-to-day of patrol that they sometimes fail to recognize how the events which take place abroad can impact security here in the States.

“Whether that is a Mumbai attack or the current saber-rattling between Israel and Iran, they don’t put it in a domestic perspective. Meaning, ‘how does this international event resonate here? What are the possible ramifications to us here on my beat and in my city?’ I talk to a lot of police officers and what I see is that once you start talking about this issue, they clearly get it then and recognize that it’s important.”

Burton says that once the international trigger incident occurs, it is way too late to go back and start laying the foundations to those relationships and making those intelligence inroads. The “quiet times” on patrol are the best times for doing security surveys at those facilities, or establishing liaison with the owner of those properties. He asks, “Have you done a walk-through when you’ve got some down time to know these sites in case you’re called for an active shooter that takes place at this location?”

Just one example from which you can choose — among the topics he covers at STRATFOR — Burton points to the tensions between Iran and Israel right now. “Whether or not Israel is going to conduct a preemptive strike on Iran is a topic that we discuss here every day. That event, in the event that it occurs, will significantly resonate here in the United States. One: does your average police officer recognize that? And two: you’ll be in a much better position if you already know within your area of responsibility those Jewish-owned, multi-national Jewish schools, synagogues, as potential target sites and you’ve made an effort to establish contact with all of them. Because that brings you to the new phenomena of your lone-wolf jihadi and how in all probability — again, back to your street officer — your street officer is going to be the most probable interface between the victim and the perpetrator.”

Counterterrorism Force Multipliers
Burton states with conviction that police officers in the United States are at the front line of the preemption of a terrorist attack on our soil. He adds that strictly from a data-collection perspective — and all police officers are data-collectors — cops are “our best eyes and ears for detecting pre-operational surveillance by anybody. If you could marshal those assets nationally, from sea to shining sea, you could have a much better picture of events from a real-time surveillance perspective than we currently do.”

The good news, he says, is that America’s cops are a counterterrorism force multiplier, especially when you’re entering into times of heightened concern.

The bad news is chillingly simple: “Based on my investigations and the kind of work I’ve done in the past, once that suicide bomber starts rolling toward target they’re going to be about 95 to 97 percent successful in carrying out their mission and killing somebody.”

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor in Chief of PoliceOne, responsible for setting the editorial direction of the website and managing the planned editorial features by our roster of expert writers. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 800 feature articles and tactical tips on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA). Even in his "spare" time, he is active in his support for the law enforcement community, contributing his time and talents toward police-related charitable events as well as participating in force-on-force training, search-and-rescue training, and other scenario-based training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

Read more articles by PoliceOne Editor in Chief Doug Wyllie by clicking here.

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