Fred Burton: In many ways, Hezbollah’s strategy has been brilliant. They continue to play chess while many other terrorist groups play checkers.

About the author

Fred Burton is one of the world’s leading experts on terrorism, terrorist organizations, and international security. Burton spent much of his career at the U.S. State Department, where he served as a special agent and then deputy chief of the Diplomatic Security Service counterterrorism division. He is also an author of numerous books, including Chasing Shadows and Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent and Beirut Rules.

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From an operational security perspective, Hezbollah is good, real good!

The Interview

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In this interview, Burton gives us a behind-the-scenes peek at what went into his book Beirut Rules and the story behind the abduction of CIA Station Chief William Francis Buckley.

Thomas Lojek: Your book Beirut Rules tells the story of the search for CIA station chief William Francis Buckley in Lebanon after being abducted by Hezbollah in 1984. For more than 400 days, Buckley was tortured and then killed by Hezbollah.

Today, nearly 40 years later, Hezbollah is still active and one of the most prominent power players in the Middle East.

Can you explain to our readers the success, for the lack of a better word, of Hezbollah and what they do so differently compared to the myriad of Islamic terrorist groups that were defeated or just became insignificant over the years?

Fred Burton: Hezbollah, the “Party of God,” are survivors.

Strategically, winning hearts and minds has been key to Hezbollah’s success by providing many social programs in Lebanon to support families, including schools and healthcare.

Hezbollah has successfully leveraged Iran’s financial and logistical support as a guiding hand.

In many ways, their strategy has been brilliant.

They continue to play chess while many other terrorist groups play checkers.

And, it helps to have a robust and capable intelligence service in your corner — namely Iran.

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Hezbollah’s reach is indeed global. I’ve seen this first-hand!

Thomas Lojek: Hezbollah has grown into an international organization no longer limited to the Middle East.

They have cells in Europe.

They train militias in Africa and try to get a stake in the South American drug trade and international money laundering operations.

What do Hezbollah’s international operations mean for the security of the western world, and how should the USA and its allies counter the global activities of Hezbollah?

Fred Burton: As a state sponsor of terror, Hezbollah’s reach is indeed global.

I’ve seen this first-hand.

In the 1980s, the terrorist group seemed always to be one step ahead, and we had a hard time figuring out their main players and actors.

Rarely, if ever, did we forecast their next move.

The organization certainly has the capability to strike Western or Israeli interests around the globe, if desired.

But, there are also constraints; if any act of terror could be directly attributed to their actions, there would be reprisals.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, their leader, knows this.

Some intelligence services watch the group better than others, i.e., the Israeli MOSSAD.

From a tactical perspective, the penetration of the organization has always been tough due to a range of tradecraft reasons.

To be blunt, we lacked the human intelligence assets to find Bill Buckley, the kidnapped station chief, and the other Western hostages (to include German hostages).

It was an intelligence failure on the part of many Western intelligence services.

I think about that pretty much every day.

We should have done more.

Go after Hezbollah’s global assets and work with INTERPOL on their criminal enterprises

Thomas Lojek: The leading nations of the free Western world give you unlimited funding and free hands to do whatever is necessary to stop Hezbollah.

What would you do?

Fred Burton: If resources and budget were no issue, I would enhance surveillance and intelligence collection efforts on every Iranian diplomat, intelligence officer, and Hezbollah operative around the world.

Work towards human source recruitment, which wouldn’t be easy.

On the diplomatic and foreign policy front, continue to go after Hezbollah’s global assets and work with INTERPOL on their criminal enterprises, like stolen cars and drug running.

Thomas Lojek: Is there any blind spot western policymakers, politicians, and security advisors have when it comes to Hezbollah and its latest rise to more influence worldwide?

Is there any warning from you about specific threats/tactics most experts don’t see or never expect from Hezbollah, which could be dangerous in the years to come?

Fred Burton: There is never a shortage of global threats facing the world.

As you prioritize those threats, where would Hezbollah fall?

There are only so many intelligence officers, analysts, and surveillance assets at your disposal.

Bandwidth is always the issue for the global Intelligence Community (IC).

The IC suffers from a range of stacking threats, i.e., the pandemic, never-ending cyber-attacks, nation-state espionage from Russia and China (primarily), Iran’s nuclear development program, and potential mass shootings.

Threat-wise, we have yet to see Iran retaliate for the January 2020 assassination of General Qasem Soleimani of the Iranian IRGC, known as “The Shadow Commander.”

I find that worrisome and would expect Iranian and Hezbollah pre-operational surveillance of U.S. and Israeli targets around the globe.

The U.S. has moved on, with the new administration pursuing domestic social justice issues, the pull-out from Afghanistan, and navigating the pandemic.

Still, I promise you that Iran and Hezbollah have not forgotten about Soleimani’s killing.

With that in mind, when and where will they retaliate?

Time will tell.

History tells me that we won’t see it coming.

Hezbollah has always had the ability to surprise the world

Thomas Lojek: What does Hezbollah do exceptionally well?

Is there any field of expertise, for example, urban warfare, unconventional warfare, making allies, specific forms of terrorism, funding, money laundering, recruiting, propaganda, etc.?

Is there anything where you take note and say, “Hezbollah does that exceptionally well?”

If so, why does Hezbollah excel in that space?

Fred Burton: From an operational security perspective, Hezbollah is good, real good.

Tough to penetrate, so their internal counter-intelligence efforts are robust.

It would be fascinating to know how their intelligence officers are being trained to ferret out spies.

The organization has always had the ability to surprise the world and was known as the business’s best bomb-makers.

I mean big bombs.

Many have forgotten the damage caused by the organization through kidnappings, hijackings, and bombings, but I haven’t and never will.

Fred Burton: Ghost – Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent

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