Why U.S. Bounties on Terrorists Often Fail
By Scott Stewart
U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman announced April 3 that the U.S. government's "Rewards for Justice" (RFJ) program was offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). In other Rewards for Justice cases involving Pakistan, suspects such as Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abdel Basit and Mir Amal Kansi have hidden in Pakistan and maintained relatively low profiles. In this case, Saeed is a very public figure in Pakistan. He even held a news conference April 4 in Rawalpindi announcing his location and taunting the United States by saying he was willing to share his schedule with U.S. officials.
While the Saeed case is clearly a political matter rather than a pure law enforcement or intelligence issue, the case has focused a great deal of attention on Rewards for Justice, and it seems an opportune time to examine the history and mechanics of the program.
Rewards for Justice
In the shadow of the 1983 and 1984 bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait and the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon, the U.S. Congress established the Rewards for Justice program under the 1984 Act to Combat International Terrorism. The program is administered by the U.S. Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service, which was established by the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986.
The program was intended not only to reward people who provide information that leads to the arrest or conviction of people who plan, commit or attempt terrorist attacks against U.S. targets but also to obtain information that prevents such attacks. U.S. government employees and the employees of other governments are not eligible for the program. The law also authorizes program participants to be entered into the U.S. Department of Justice witness protection program to ensure their safety after providing information. The statute covers arrests of and convictions for the subjects sought and contains a clause for "favorable resolution" of such cases that can be applied when a military strike results in the death of the suspect.
While the RFJ program currently offers large rewards — $25 million for Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda, and $10 million for figures such as Saeed and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar — the rewards initially offered by the program were much smaller, up to $500,000. That amount was increased to $1 million in 1990, and then augmented to $2 million total through matching funds provided by the Air Transport Association and the Air Line Pilots Association. The program gained the ability to offer large payments for figures such as al-Zawahiri under the 2001 Patriot Act, which was passed after the 9/11 attacks.
The RFJ got off to a slow start and didn't really begin to have much of an impact until the early 1990s. Its first significant success occurred during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when an informant in Bangkok tipped off American officials to a pending attack against U.S. interests there by agents of the Iraqi Intelligence Service. The informant received a significant reward and was relocated to a safe place along with his family. However, rewards paid for information leading to the prevention of attacks have proved to be the exception rather than the rule for the RFJ.
The program also figured prominently in the February 1995 capture of Abdel Basit in Pakistan. Basit, widely known as Ramzi Yousef (the name on one of his fraudulent passports), is a Pakistani citizen born in Kuwait. He was the principal operational leader and bombmaker in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. After fleeing the United States he also planned a number of other failed or thwarted attacks in Manila, Bangkok and Pakistan. Basit is also the nephew of alleged 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, with whom he conspired. The widespread use of the Ramzi Yousef name and Iraqi passport provided a great deal of confusion regarding his true identity, but it also allowed the government of Pakistan to extradite the Pakistani citizen to the United States with very little public backlash.
The RFJ was also used by the CIA to entice Pakistani tribesmen in June 1997 to hand over Mir Amal Kansi, who was convicted and executed in Virginia, for a January 1993 shooting outside the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Kansi, a Pakistani citizen, was rendered from Pakistan instead of extradited, which generated a great deal of controversy inside Pakistan.
While the RFJ advertises that it has paid out more than $100 million in rewards, it must be pointed out that a great deal of that money has been paid in Iraq, where the reward paid for the deaths of Udai and Qusay Hussein alone was $30 million. More than $11 million has been paid out in recent years for leaders of the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines. Although $25 million rewards were offered each for Saddam Hussein and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, rewards were not authorized in their cases.
In order for a high-profile reward such as that offered for Saeed to be established, a case has to be made before an interagency rewards program committee, which is chaired by the director of the Diplomatic Security Service. In addition to State Department personnel, the committee includes representatives from the Department of Justice, the FBI, the National Security Council, the CIA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Treasury and the Department of Homeland Security. This interagency RFJ committee also authorizes the payment of rewards once cases are resolved and an informant is nominated to receive a reward. The secretary of state must personally authorize any reward offer exceeding $5 million, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton approved the reward for Saeed after receiving the committee's recommendation.
Intelligence can come into the program via the Internet, telephone or mail. After a reward is issued and publicized, the RFJ staff is typically deluged with potential leads — many of which come from scammers and mentally disturbed individuals. However, most of the good sources the program has developed have contacted U.S. embassies or intelligence officers in person. While the program was once envisioned as an operational entity that would recruit and run informants, it has for the most part become an administrative program that provides rewards to informants run by other agencies.
The CIA also has specially designated operational funds that can be used as payments for intelligence pertaining to terrorism, albeit in a much more low-key fashion. Such payments do not have to undergo the type of public and interagency scrutiny and limitations that RFJ rewards must endure.
The RFJ does have its limitations. Despite the huge rewards offered, the program has had very little luck in recent years capturing high-profile figures in Pakistan such as al-Zawahiri, Mullah Omar, Hakeemullah Mehsud or Sirajuddin Haqqani.
Additionally, although the program was instituted in large part as a response to the attacks conducted by Hezbollah against U.S. interests, the program has not had success in capturing figures such as Hasan Izz-al Din, Ali Atwa and Mohamed al-Hamadei, who are accused of hijacking TWA Flight 847 in 1985, despite the $5 million rewards offered for each of them.
One of the big assumptions behind the initiation of the program, and the subsequent increases in the amount of the rewards offered, is that everybody is for sale. If enough money is offered all the suspects will be turned in. Yet despite the very high rewards offered for many suspects, people have not come forward to offer information regarding their locations. This is likely due to two factors. First, it is clear that not everyone is for sale. Most of the people who are close enough to the target to provide actionable intelligence are in fact true believers and can't be bought.
Second, there is a general distrust of the U.S. government in the parts of the world where most of the critical suspects are hiding — places like Lebanon and Pakistan. Individuals who might otherwise be induced by the cash rewards do not trust the U.S. intention or capability to protect them or their extended families. This protection would be required against reprisal not only from the terrorist group but also from the government itself. A current case in point is the medical doctor who helped locate Osama bin Laden and who is now in prison in Pakistan facing possible high treason charges.
As illustrated by the amounts of the rewards listed above, the program has proved more successful in a place like Iraq, where the U.S. military had a significant presence and control, or a location like the Philippines or Thailand, where the U.S. government is viewed in a somewhat better light.
It is also very difficult to get suspects out of hostile areas controlled by powerful tribes like the Pashtun along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border or powerful groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, or to nab suspects who are protected by the government in a country like Iran or Pakistan.
In the Saeed case, the RFJ program is clearly being used for political purposes. This is firmly underscored by the fact that the announcement of the reward was made in India, the site of the 2008 Mumbai attacks and Pakistan's longtime regional rival. Certainly, due to sentiment on the Pakistani street and the Pakistani government's need to maintain the use of militant proxies in pursuing its interests in the region, the U.S. government does not expect the government of Pakistan to hand Saeed over. This case simply cannot be divorced from the larger dynamic of U.S.-Pakistani relations in the context of the pending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Saeed's choice of Rawalpindi, the heart of the Pakistani military establishment, as the location for his news conference clearly indicates that he feels secure that the Pakistani government will continue to protect him. The U.S. government certainly knows this. Therefore, the intent of the U.S. government in this case is not so much to facilitate the capture of Saeed but to use the reward as a mechanism to pressure the government of Pakistan to keep under control the militant networks that have evolved out of the LeT.