As the world reacts to the news of the killing of terrorist-leader Osama Bin-Laden, intelligence agents and law enforcement officials continue to track and stop other terrorists, their work remaining far away from the news-media spotlight.
One person who knows that shadow world well is Fred Burton, an analyst for the Austin, Texas-based Stratfor, a private global intelligence company. In two books he has written, Burton has described the painstaking work that lies behind success stories like the U.S. operation in Pakistan.
When Fred Burton started working for the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service in the mid-1980s, he was part of a three-person team that tried to track terrorist suspects to protect U.S. diplomats abroad. Today there are much larger teams, not only at the State Department, but in other U.S. agencies, working on the counterterrorism effort.
Since the attacks instigated by Osama bin-Laden and his al-Qaida accomplices on September 11, 2001, still widely referred to in the United States as 9/11, the United States has taken aggressive steps to stop terrorists and deal with any incidents that may occur.
Burton says he thinks the country is safer as a result, but that it can never be completely safe. “We are much better today at dealing with another 9/11 kind of event, predicated on the lessons learned from that. First responders [to disasters] are better trained along those lines. Fortunately, I think, the FBI has done a pretty good job of neutralizing any kind of strategic threat on U.S. soil, but individuals, lone wolfs, jihadists are going to be capable of killing, and killing pretty much whoever they want," he said.
Burton says acts by individuals who are not directly linked to any terrorist organization are almost impossible to predict and stop, but the greater threat comes from organizations that can plan and coordinate larger events and can pose a continuing threat. Tracking those groups around the world is a daunting task, but Burton says there are men and women engaged in that effort every hour of every day, and because of the nature of their work it must go on in secret.
“It is a tough job. It is a very tough job and a much more complex job than it ever was when I was involved in the business, so I know how tough it is on families having lived through this and I also know that 95 percent of them will never get the thanks or recognition they deserve," he said.
Fred Burton has authored two books about his work in tracking down terrorists, “Ghost, Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent” and, most recently, “Chasing Shadows: A Special Agent's Lifelong Hunt to Bring a Cold War Assassin to Justice.”
This latest book focuses on the case of Josef Alon, an Israeli diplomat who was murdered in Burton's hometown of Bethesda, Maryland on June 30, 1973 . Alon had been the Assistant Air and Naval Attache at the Israeli embassy in Washington. This was the first murder of a diplomat in the Washington area.
Although he was only 16-years-old at the time of the killing, Burton felt a strong connection to the case. “I went to school with the victim's oldest daughter, where the murder took place was my old neighborhood where I grew up, the rescue squad that responded and transported the victim to the hospital I am a life member of, I had joined as a kid. The police department that responded is my original police department that I had joined, and then, when I was an agent with the State Department, my organization was responsible for investigating attacks on diplomats," he said.
Alon had a long distinguished career in the Israeli military, but there was no indication that he had been an intelligence agent assigned to the embassy in Washington or that there would have been any particular reason for terrorists to target him.
He had been well-known as a so-called “ladies man” and police investigating the case looked for leads with that angle in mind and came up with nothing. There was also no evidence of the shooting having been a robbery attempt.
The case languished and lay largely abandoned after a few years.
Burton later became more directly involved in an effort by family members and a couple of law enforcement officers to resolve the case. “The family came forward and asked me to try to figure out who killed their dad, and the original FBI agent who worked the case came forward and the cold case detective for the police department that got the case also was significant in this. So it was a good team effort to figure out who did it and why," he said.
After exploring the dark world of international terrorist organizations, Burton came to the conclusion that the murder had been carried out by the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September. That group had also carried out the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Germany and Israeli agents later hunted down and killed most of them.
Although Burton's book does not contain ironclad evidence in the Alon case, it does provide insight into how and why a terrorist group might have carried out such a crime.
In the years since the 1973 murder in Bethesda, Burton has become much more involved in examining terrorism and analyzing terrorist threats for Stratfor clients. But he also keeps a list of terrorist suspects he has tracked in the past and delights in crossing out a name once the person has been captured or killed.