US hikes reward for ISIS leader to $25 million. Do rewards work?

The Rewards for Justice program is run by the State Department. But the establishing and granting of bounties involves top figures from just about every major government agency. 

AP Photo
This file image made from video posted on a militant website Saturday, July 5, 2014, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq during his first public appearance.

The US State Department is raising the reward (from $10 million to $25 million) for information leading to the arrest, capture, or conviction of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. It says the threat posed by the leader has “increased significantly” since the initial amount was set in 2011.

The bounty is the top tier offered by the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program. Only Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of Al Qaeda, occupies the same tier. 

Baghdadi's last known public appearance came shortly after the group’s 2014 capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul, which is now surrounded by Iraqi troops. US officials have said they believe he is hiding either in Mosul or in the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria, notes the Washington Post.

The size of the bounty – its inevitable conspicuousness – shines a light on the complicated logistics around granting the reward, an inter-agency process that has gotten more difficult as the sums involved have inflated over the years. But it can be effective.

"A reward on your head creates for the individual significant angst,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R) of California who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, in a 2012 hearing.

"As the State Department will testify, one captured narcotics target told the DEA that he could no longer trust anyone in his or- ganization after a $5-million reward was offered. He felt, he said, ‘like a hunted man.' And given the destruction many of these char- acters do to the globe and to the people in their country, this is money well spent."

"Since the anti-terrorism program got its start in 1984, noted The Christian Science Monitor’s Samantha Laine last year, it has paid out over $125 million to over 80 informants, according to the State Department. The Department keeps information on specific cases under tight wraps. But it credits the program with the capture of Ramzi Yousef, who was later convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, as well as the deaths of Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay, who were killed after a tip led US forces to their hideout. 

"When asked why the informant was in protective custody, the officer involved in the [Iraqi] raid said: 'People around here know who owned the house,’” wrote CNN after the raid in 2003, although the officer would not confirm that the informant was the owner.

The State Department gets the word of a new reward out via US and foreign media outlets, billboards, flyers, postcards, and perhaps most famously, by matchbook cover, particularly in countries where smoking is widespread. As the intelligence and risk analysis group, Stratfor noted in 2012, the initial advertisement of the reward is usually followed by a flood of false leads, “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,” says Stratfor. 

The idea is to dangle a carrot that will “push someone over the edge”, said John Esposito, a Georgetown University professor of international affairs, in a 2011 interview with CNN, adding that secrecy around the program is key.

"You have to be sure that people are protected. The fewest possible people who know, the better, because in order for the system to work well, there should be complete anonymity. Even in government circles, you want to keep it classified."

The reward process is highly bureaucratized: for the bounty to be established on a particular suspect, a case has to be made before a committee with reps from the major intelligence services, the FBI, and the departments of Justice, Defense, Treasury and Homeland Security. If the reward exceeds $5 million the secretary of State has to personally approve it. Before it’s granted, the secretary of State is required to get the US Attorney General’s approval. And just like in organized-crime cases, the informant goes into government-sponsored hiding, entering the Department of Justice’s Witness Protection Program, with a special visa available to allow them to hide out in the US, according to a 2002 report from a top DEA lawyer.

The State Department isn't the only reward program to serve the US government’s anti-terrorism aims: as Stratfor notes, the CIA has a program of its own, with specially designated funds, and none of the inter-agency scrutiny.

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