U.S. terror expert: ‘We could make anyone betray their cause’

Fred Burton, a leading U.S. security expert, says money is still the best incentive to persuade terrorists to leak information

Paul Crompton

Published: Updated:

Most people have their price and are prepared to act as informants about terrorist plots, according to a leading U.S. security expert.

Fred Burton, former deputy chief of the counter-terrorism division of the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, says money is still the best incentive to persuade terrorists and others to provide information about planned attacks and the whereabouts of suspects.

Burton was closely involved with the security service’s Rewards for Justice program, which for
almost three decades has been tempting would-be informants with the prospect of cash in exchange for information.

“You can target pretty much anybody to get them to betray their country, to betray their organization,” said Burton.

The security expert cited four motivations for potential informants, which he refers to as ‘MICE’: money, ideology, compromise and ego.

“Typically, with the rewards program, what you are focusing on is the first one: M is for money. [For] the bulk of the folks I’ve dealt with and paid rewards to, although they may be committed terrorists, they’re still monetarily driven,” Burton said.

Burton, who has authored two books recounting his time as a counter-terrorism agent, currently serves as a vice president for Stratfor, a Texas-based global intelligence company.

During his 14-year career, Burton was involved in many high-profile investigations including the search and subsequent arrest of Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, and the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The expert told Al Arabiya News how the U.S. government goes about pursuing the ‘most wanted’.

Q&A with Fred Burton, former deputy chief of the counterterrorism division of the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service.

Q. What is the relation of the State Department’s reward program with the FBI’s ‘Ten Most Wanted Fugitives’ list?

Each government agency pretty much has their own rewards program, but the Rewards for Justice program was created as part of the Omnibus diplomatic security act in 1985, which is a counter-terrorism tool to not only advertise “wanted” rewards of up to $20 million for the capture of wanted terrorists, but it also pays reward monies… for information to thwart terror plots.

So for example, if you have an informant that has information on a plan to either blow up an embassy, or an airline, or a Western target, the Rewards For Justice program can pay a reward for information.

The FBI top ten program is a bit different. It primarily centers on wanted fugitives from traditionally your more run-of-the-mill kind of crime – either mafia, killers, sex offenders, bank robbers, those kinds of criminals. The Rewards for Justice program focuses on the international capture of terrorists.

Q. And now Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader, is top of the program’s list?

Yes. We need a new figurehead to go after, now that we’ve killed Bin Laden. Having al-Zawahiri at the top makes perfect sense.

Q. Could you run us through some background of what you know of the terrorists on the list? What do they all have in common?

They’ve got U.S. or Western blood on their hands. One of the first tenets you look at is: has this person carried out terrorist attacks, or killed Americans or Westerners? So you look at that.

You look at their degree of tempo, pace, patterns. Like in the case of Ramzi Youssef, the World Trade Center bomber, who [also] tried to kill the pope in the Philippines, had bombed aircraft.

So you’re looking at these terrorist suspects with their pattern of behavior, obviously with a laser focus with groups on al-Qaeda, to try to kill and capture as many as you can before they’re able to kill again.

You also try to look from a legal standpoint: if you capture this individual, can we prosecute him in a U.S. court, or could we capture this individual and hand him over to the Brits, or to the Canadians, or whoever, for prosecution. There’s always that discussion around the table as well, that goes on behind closed doors.

Q. How likely is it that the suspects will get caught?

Very likely. If you look at the success of the program over time, once they go on the list, even if you stop there and look at the FBI top ten fugitive list, usually, once they go on that list too, they’re very quickly apprehended. The effectiveness of having these persons on the list is that, over time, you will eventually get them.

The more that you can market and promote the advertisement and the more that you can place an incentive on people, in essence, for ratting off information, the better chance you have of capturing, or killing the individual that you’re after.

Money is a very powerful incentive in the business. For an example, in the Ramzi Youssef case, we paid an informant $1.2 million. That in today’s money is not a lot of money. It’s a lot of money, but it’s not a lot of money. If Youssef was still on the loose today, I’m sure the bounty would probably be $10 million due to inflation.

Q. How do you verify that you’re not getting phony or false information?

Well, you have a tremendous check and balance process in place. If you look at most of the walk-ins and intelligence that’s brought forward, nine times out of ten it is hogwash, but occasionally, there’s a diamond in the rough. That’s part of your job, as an agent, to verify and vet that intelligence.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument that someone has information that there’s going to be an attack somewhere in the Middle East, and they’ve seen this offer and they bring that information forward, the intelligence community goes to great lengths to verify the credibility of that information.

They’ll pass that information to the respective foreign government, they’ll do surveillance, they know locations, they’ll pick up suspects. There is a very aggressive and active investigation process that goes on to vet all of these threats.

Q. What is the profile of the average informant? Are these the kind of people that are really in the know?

Typically, its persons very close to the individual and/or extended family. There really is no set profile, but is usually has to be someone who has access to the target. It could be a disgruntled member of the terrorist group, it could be an extended family member, it could be household staff, it could be a double agent, so to speak…
It’s very tactical in nature. We’re not paying for information on theoretical PHD studies here. You’re paying for very granular data that this guy knows there’s going to be an attack, and this is how it’s going to be done, and these are the bombs, these are the weapons, this is the location, and this is the cellphone they’re using, or this is where the guy is right now.

Q. If someone comes forward to you saying he has information, and you know he’s a terrorist, does he escape penalty? Is there a witness protection program?

Well, with the Rewards for Justice program, there are specific provisions where you can provide very expedited visas into the United States for the person and his immediate family, which is usually a spouse or children, it stops there. It’s usually not the mother, the father, the uncle, the cousin.

Yes, you can put that individual into the witness protection program inside the United States. I’ve done that too. You can place individuals into the Witness Security Program, they become a ward of the U.S. Marshals service, the marshals provide a new identity, a new location, and help you secure employment. The challenge with some of these folks, are whether you’re a mob boss or a terrorist, what kind of real jobs skills do you have? In reality, it’s a challenge at times to find somebody with some pretty good job skills.

Surprisingly, [in the] the U.S. Marshals’ Witness Security Program, no-one’s ever been lost under that program, meaning no-one’s ever been hunted down and killed. They do a wonderful job of protecting their identities and placing people into different jobs.

Q. If these guys do get caught, particularly in the case of al-Zawahiri, is it going to make a real difference to global terror operations?

In the case of al-Zawahiri, justice needs to be served. In al-Zawahiri’s case, it would be a very symbolic act on the part of the U.S. government or another foreign government to either kill or capture him. Much like Bin Laden, let’s face it, do you really replace a Bin Laden? Not really.

It’s almost an Israeli model of cutting off the head of the snake. If you take out enough tactical commanders, pretty soon, there’s not anybody that can put together a strategic attack. There’s plenty of foot soldiers to die for the cause, but finding the Bin Ladens and al-Zawahiris of the world is a bit more challenging.