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Chasing Shadows

Machla Abramovitz

From shadowy terrorist cells to lone wolves on the prowl, counter terrorist expert Fred Burton has seen them all, captured some, and has seen many of them come and go, in a career that has spanned the last 30 years. In this wide-ranging, exclusive interview, Burton separates fact from fantasy and shares his astute assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of America’s approach to fighting terror.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The assassination of Osama bin Laden on May 1, after years of frustrating and painstaking pursuit, focused world attention not only on the US Navy SEALs, the elite maritime commando squad within the US Special Operations Command that carried out this covert operation, but also on an array of counterterrorism measures employed in his pursuit.

These measures included stealth helicopters so sophisticated that they were able to elude Pakistani air defenses while operating mere miles from Pakistan’s military academy, as well as the tracking down and surveillance of a key bin Laden courier, whose identity was supposedly ascertained through controversial interrogation techniques.

Indeed, what surfaced were diffuse structures supporting what have often been referred to as “shadow wars.” In these wars, terrorist and counterterrorist are pitted against each other, often in mortal combat. Simply stated, the terrorist’s goal is to wreak as much havoc and death upon innocent civilians as possible, while the counterterrorist’s goal is to prevent that from happening.

Fred Burton, fifty-three, a leading expert on international terrorist organizations, has been a “counterterrorist” his entire professional life. He is currently vice president of counterterrorism and corporate security for Strategic Forecasting, Inc. (Stratfor) — a private global intelligence agency, once described by Barron’s business journal as the “shadow CIA.”

Prior to joining Stratfor, Mr. Burton was special agent and deputy chief of the counterterrorism division of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), which provides global protection for embassy officials. It was in this capacity that Burton investigated the assassinations of Yitzchak Rabin and Rabbi Meir Kahane; tracked down Abu Nidal, the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal; and captured Ramzi Ahmad Yousef, the original World Trade Center bomber.

It is this enigmatic world, inhabited by terrorists and counterterrorists, that Burton explores in his newly released book, Chasing Shadows: A Special Agent’s Lifelong Hunt to Bring a Cold War Assassin to Justice. Burton also recounts his efforts to uncover and fit together the pieces that would finally bring closure to a thirty-year-old cold case — the July 1973 assassination in Bethesda, Maryland, of Colonel Joseph Alon, the Israeli air attaché to the Pentagon and a hero of the 1967 Six Day War. Having been consistently stonewalled by the Israeli and US governments, Alon’s widow, Devora, died not knowing who killed her husband or why. In 2007, Alon’s daughters approached Burton, a former neighbor, who took it upon himself to try to uncover the truth years after he was no longer in an official position to do so.

“In the 1980s when I had the case formally, I was able to compel people to cooperate with me,” Burton said. “But, then, I was just too new, too young, and too afraid of my bosses to do what needed to be done.”

Chasing Shadows recounts Burton’s efforts to right this wrong. It also introduces readers to this murky, shadowy world of espionage, counterespionage and dual loyalties, as it existed in the period immediately following the killing of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics until the following year’s Yom Kippur War.

This was a sensitive period for the US–Israel relationship. Israel needed US military aid and equipment in the wake of a French arms embargo. America, embroiled in a war against Soviet proxies in Vietnam, was equally anxious to glean technological and tactical lessons from Israel’s mastery of the skies against the Soviet-built MiG fighter jets flown by its Arab foes.

“As air attaché, Alon became the vital link in the growing military relationship between the US and Israel,” writes Burton, a probable reason why the common enemies of the US and Israel would have wanted to see Alon eliminated. Given that no ironclad evidence ultimately emerged, can Burton be certain who killed Joseph Alon and why?

“Without a doubt it was Black September,” said Burton.

Yet, he acknowledges, there are many puzzle pieces missing that may never come to light. For example, who gave the order for the FBI to destroy the physical evidence some five years after Alon’s assassination?

“What people fail to understand is that in the counterterrorism business, there are no absolutes,” said Burton. “You get the evidence and reach reasonable conclusions. Alon was ultimately just a victim of the shadow war. He was one of many killed during this time period.”


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