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US offers $20 million bounty for ISIS leaders. Does money really talk?

The reward raises the question of whether money is enough to motivate individuals to turn in dangerous terrorists.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
The entrance to a 150-meter-long tunnel dug by ISIS in a village once controlled by ISIS.

The United States government may be banking on a bounty to take down the leaders of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

On Tuesday, the US State Department announced it will offer multimillion-dollar rewards for information about four IS leaders through its Rewards for Justice Program. The high price tags on the various men raises the question of whether this approach is an effective way to fight terrorism, or simply the government’s way to point out that counterterrorism efforts are needed, no matter the cost.

According to a statement from the US State Department, the Rewards for Justice Program targeted four IS leaders and officials as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. The rewards for information on each individual ranges from $3 million to $7 million, totaling $20 million.

The Secretary of State has authorized rewards of up to $7 million for information on ‘Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli; up to $5 million each for information on Abu Mohammed al-Adnani and Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili; and up to $3 million for information on Tariq Bin-al-Tahar Bin al Falih al-‘Awni al-Harzi.

Mr. Qaduli is described as a senior IS official, and one of the original members of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor to IS. Mr. Batirashvili is thought to be chief of the organization’s suicide bombers; Mr. Adnani is an IS spokesman; and Mr. Harzi is one of the Islamic State’s first members who regularly raises funds and recruits for the extremist group.

The State Department said IS is an international terrorist group, recruiting members from around the world. The group “commit[s] gross, systematic human rights abuses, including mass executions, persecution of individuals and entire communities on the basis of their identity, killing and maiming of children, rape, and numerous other atrocities,” and is therefore a priority. The US also offers a $10 million reward for IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Abu Du’a).

Is offering money for known terrorists an effective way to bring extremist groups to an end?

The State Department said that since the Rewards for Justice program began in 1984, the program has paid over $125 million dollars to more than 80 informants. With that, the government has been able to locate and imprison terrorists.

Although the website does not include data for how many wanted individuals have been captured, it claims the Rewards for Justice program played a major role in the arrest of Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of bombing the World Trade Center in 1993.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert A. Hartung, who oversees the program, said that the trouble in gaining information is giving people a strong reason to come forward. Money motivates people to talk, and ultimately is worth the price.

“There are many reasons for sources coming forward, but money is obviously a powerful motivating force,” Mr. Hartung told NBC News. “I cannot emphasize enough that this program helps save lives.”

The rewards come from American taxpayers, usually in the form of yearly appropriations to the Emergencies in the Diplomatic and Consular Services budget. Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow with the 21st Century Defense Initiative, said that while money may be motivating, fear and distrust can often prevent the flow of information even when the monetary reward is high.

“A lot of people in the broader Middle East are motivated by money. But they have to feel like they can stay alive long enough to enjoy the reward,” Mr. O'Hanlon said, as reported by NBC News. Relationships and connections within the program need to continue to develop to further its success.

It’s going to require some degree of proximity to U.S. government people whom they know personally, allowing them to feel trust. Secondly, they have to feel the security is good enough locally to collect the reward. There’s a fairly limited subset of cases where those conditions are applicable. It's worth doing. But you’ve got to keep your expectations modest.

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