Fred Burton began his law enforcement career in a way many police officers can relate to — as a young man with the desire to help people in his community. In the first chapter of his book, GHOST: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, Burton writes, “I was a Maryland cop. I protected my community. I loved law enforcement, but I wanted something more.”
He joined the Diplomatic Security Service of the U.S. Department of State in November 1985 — around the time terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro — and eventually became deputy chief of the agency’s Counterterrorism Division. Notably, Burton orchestrated the arrest of Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Widely considered to be one of the world’s foremost authorities on terrorists and terrorist organizations, Burton spoke with PoliceOne about some of the things law enforcement can do to prevent future terrorist attacks.
The Beat Cop
Most police officers know where the “high-value targets” are in their patrol area: power plants, transportation facilities, malls, hospitals, sports complexes, rail yards, radio towers, and public buildings. But it goes way beyond even that list. It’s the old beat cop principle of knowing everything happening in your area of responsibility.
“Have you reached out to the Imam of the mosque or the Rabbi of that synagogue and establish some dialogue? 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.”
Ethnically-owned small businesses — from the deli to the self-storage facility — are always good conduits of information. When he visits police agencies around the country, he asks for a show of hands: ‘Who here knows those business owners?’
“You’ll get a hit or miss response,” he laments. “In an audience of 100 you might get 25 hands. There’s still not a lot of understanding of your different communities where you can play a significant role in the war on terror.”
Who’s Watching the Watchers?
Most pre-operational surveillance — such as taking a picture or shooting scenic video — is innocent-looking in nature and generally doesn’t break the law. The problem isn’t the legality of the activity, it’s that virtually no one is taking note that it’s even happening. Fewer still will write it up in an intelligence report to the local JTTF for further investigation.
“There may be three or four of those things happening 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.’
“I think street cops think, ‘Well, the FBI must be doing that’ but that’s just not the case. Today’s FBI has 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. Your average street cop has the ability to just do more intelligence collection through interfacing within their area of responsibility.”
Where would a terrorist go to cultivate new recruits? Where would he find recent converts to Islam who could easily be radicalized? Where are there large numbers of disenfranchised young men who are prone to violence?
“A couple of environments are very conducive for the recruitment for jihadist criminal activity. Obviously, one is the prison system — more at the local and state level than the federal system — where you see the recruitment of gang members as well as converts to Islam. There, you get the captive audience that has to ‘join the group’ for self-preservation.”
A Successful Model
The recent prevention of a grassroots jihadist attack reveals some of the things Burton discusses with law enforcement agencies he visits throughout the United States:
• Among these homegrown terrorists, three converted to Islam in prison
• Relatively ordinary local synagogues were among the terrorists’ intended targets
• One well-placed informant in a mosque was the conduit to law enforcement
• The would-be terrorists conducted their preoperational surveillance in the open
• Vigilant observation of the suspects led to the successful prevention of an attack
Of course, we’re talking about the Newburgh plot. There’s one other element to the Newburgh plot worth noting, and it’s as esoteric as it is concrete. The suspects “wanted to commit jihad” because they were “disturbed about what was happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Eyeing the Horizon
Burton says that police officers are so focused on the day-to-day of patrol that they sometimes fail to recognize how the events abroad can impact security here in the States.
“Whether that’s a Mumbai event or saber-rattling between Israel and Iran, they don’t put it in a domestic perspective: ‘What are the possible ramifications of this international event to my beat and my city?’ I talk to a lot of police officers — once you start talking about this issue, they clearly ‘get it’ then and recognize that it’s important.”
Counterterrorism Force Multipliers
The good news, Burton says, is that America’s cops are a counterterrorism force multiplier.
“If you could marshal those assets from sea to shining sea, you’d have a much better picture of events from a real-time surveillance perspective than we currently do.”
The bad news is chillingly simple.
“Based on my investigations and the kind of work I’ve done in the past,” Burton says, “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.”