Fred Burton is a born storyteller. And he has a lot of stories to tell. Burton is Stratfor's long-time Chief Security officer. He's also a former counter-terrorism agent with the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service. One other note: Burton is a New York Times bestselling author.
So how does one move from the fast-paced life of global security into an occupation that many may associate more with a slow, methodical translation of ideas into words followed by the measured, careful transfer of those words to paper?
That, dear reader, presupposes that the two are incompatible. Fred Burton's stories are about his past work as an agent and the cases he worked: from dozens of hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon over nearly a decade to the Zia plane crash in 1988 that killed U.S. Ambassador Arnie Raphel, the last U.S. ambassador killed in the line of duty until the 2012 murder of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, along with countless other investigations into bombings, hijackings and violent extremist attacks.
"I write what I know," says Burton. "I like looking back into cases and investigations that I've worked over the years. I also try to shine a light into old cases that still haunt me."
Burton's past has so far resulted in four books: a memoir: Ghost: Confessions of a Former Counterterrorism Agent (2008), Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi (2014), Chasing Shadows: A Special Agent’s Lifelong Hunt to Bring a Cold War Assassin to Justice (2011) and the recently published: Beirut Rules: The Murder of a CIA Station Chief and Hezbollah's War Against America.
Every writer wants to connect with readers; to have composed something so compelling that the book lingers long after the covers have been closed. Fred Burton says he hears from people at events, in casual contact, email, snail mail and in social media how many ways his work resonates.
"One of my prized possessions is an autographed copy of Chasing Shadows signed by the infamous terrorist Carlos "The Jackal."
"Carlos the Jackal" was the nom de guerre for Venezuela born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, a Marxist and a terrorist who was involved in high profile murders (he once claimed he'd killed as many as 80 people), bomb plots and attacks against Western targets. He's currently serving a life sentence in France.
"One day I received a package from France," Burton says, "Inside was a copy of my book. I opened the book, and saw that he had written on the cover page, 'With my best revolutionary regards, Carlos'. He made sure to underline his name so I knew who he was. You see, the story of Chasing Shadows centers on my 37-year hunt for the assassin who gunned down Colonel Joe Alon, the Israeli military attache in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I was 16 when it happened. I never forgot."
Burton's research for the book entailed crisscrossing the globe and hunting down new clues so that he could bring closure to the Alon family, who live in Israel.
In a 2017 Stratfor column, Burton wrote:
As I conducted my investigation into the 1973 assassination of Israeli military attache Col. Joseph Alon in Maryland — my pursuit of his murderers is the subject of Chasing Shadows — I realized that Carlos might be a valuable source of information. After all, the assassin had worked with radical Palestinian groups in the same era as Alon's death.
Burton was able to track down and speak to Sanchez' wife for the book. Eventually, he ascertained that the Black September organization - the same group that killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics — was responsible for Alon's murder.
"I'm proud to have had this book printed in Hebrew. And to have been a part of a documentary about the case with the Alons."
His writing has taken Burton on adventures he never dreamed he'd have. "Under Fire, my book about the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, was optioned to HBO Films for a movie. I was fortunate to have appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to talk about my first book Ghost. That was an experience."
Burton's latest, Beirut Rules hearkens back to the swift ascent of the terrorist group Hezbollah during the 1980s. The group (calling itself "the party of God") formed after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. By that summer, guerillas with Islamic Jihad (later determined by the U.S. to be part of Hezbollah) had begun taking Americans hostage. Within a year, they had driven a bomb into the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemembers as they slept and wounding more than 100 others.
CIA Station Chief William F. Buckley was assigned to investigate that bombing. It was not long before he too was captured by Hezbollah. Fred Burton was assigned to investigate Buckley's kidnapping. That is an experience he will never forget.
President George H.W. Bush, who once directed the CIA, wrote of Beirut Rules:
"In these pages, Fred Burton and [coauthor] Samuel Katz ably describe the selfless service and ultimate sacrifice of CIA's William F. Buckley, murdered brutally while held as a hostage in Lebanon. Beirut Rules can’t bring this quiet hero back to life. But it will show a new generation the value of a life well lived in service of country."
Burton says he was humbled by that testimonial. "But the decision to write this book was personal. I had worked on Bill Buckley's case as a young special agent assigned to the CIA Hostage Location Task Force in the 1980s. We looked hard for Bill when he was abducted in Beirut, but never had the human intelligence to find him before it was too late. For me, it was a true honor to be able to tell Bill's story because he was a hero who died in service."
Buckley was actually one of several American hostages taken by Hezbollah in Beirut. Among the others taken in those early months were American University of Beirut President David Dodge, who was not released until nearly a decade later. Three of his AUB colleagues, Peter Kilburn Leigh Douglas and Philip Padfield, were kidnapped and murdered.
Kilburn was a friend and colleague of Ann and Craig Hinrichs. Craig taught at the American University in Beirut in the early 1980s. That is why, they wrote to Burton, Beirut Rules created a deep impact.
Your book...has brought back memories both very good and some very dark. It is a catharticial (sic) experience for us. Unlike your other outstanding writings which we wish to read from beginning to end without pause, we go slowly and cautiously through Beirut Rules. But through this work you have helped us address those thoughts of "things that go bump" in the darkness of the darkest night. For this and many other reasons too numerous to put into a short note, we thank you!
With their letter, the Hinrichs enclosed a copy of a photo taken in 1983, on the balcony of their apartment on the AUB campus. In the background is a view of the sandbagged U.S. Marine security post at the British Embassy. "This same post can be see in the photo section of Beirut Rules," they write.
Burton says he is constantly amazed at the depth with which people experience his books. "I'm just so grateful that I have this opportunity. It is the perfect complement to my career."
Fred Burton is not done writing. He's currently percolating topics for his next book. And he stays busy.
In March, he'll be at SXSW. He will speak at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas in April. And he will relaunch his Stratfor podcast series in which he discusses books with fellow authors of true crime, espionage and thrillers. His first interview next month will be with Mike Trott about his new book, The Protected. You can find that, and other interviews on our website. Meantime, you can read some more tales about Fred Burton's work with the U.S. State Department and the history of counterterrorism, espionage and more at Stratfor Worldview.