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Bounties a Bust in Hunt for Al-Qaeda

Lavish U.S. Rewards Program Has Failed to Dent Network's Leadership

Jaber Elbaneh, a U.S.-Yemeni citizen with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, walks into court in Sanaa, Yemen, where officials have refused to arrest or extradite him.
Jaber Elbaneh, a U.S.-Yemeni citizen with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, walks into court in Sanaa, Yemen, where officials have refused to arrest or extradite him. (By Craig Whitlock -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 17, 2008; Page A01

SANAA, Yemen -- Jaber Elbaneh is one of the world's most-wanted terrorism suspects. In 2003, the U.S. government indicted him, posted a $5 million reward for his capture and distributed posters bearing photos of him around the globe.

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None of it worked. Elbaneh remains at large, as wanted as ever. The al-Qaeda operative, however, isn't very hard to find.

One day last month, he shuffled down a busy street here in the Yemeni capital, past several indifferent policemen. Then he disappeared inside a building, though not before accidentally stepping on a reporter's toes.

Elbaneh, 41, is one of two dozen al-Qaeda members listed under a U.S. program that offers enormous sums of cash for information leading to their capture. For years, the Bush administration has touted the bounties as a powerful tool in its fight against terrorism. But in the hunt for al-Qaeda, it has proved a bust.

Known as Rewards for Justice, the program dates to 1984 and was originally used to track down fugitive terrorism suspects of all persuasions, from the Balkans to the Palestinian territories. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the most-wanted list was expanded -- and the rewards boosted exponentially -- as part of a push to eliminate al-Qaeda's leadership.

So far, however, Rewards for Justice has failed to put a dent in al-Qaeda's central command. Offers of $25 million each for al-Qaeda founders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have attracted hundreds of anonymous calls but no reliable leads, officials familiar with the program say. For a time, the program was generating so little useful information that in Pakistan, where most al-Qaeda chiefs are believed to be hiding, it was largely abandoned.

"It's certainly been ineffective," said Robert L. Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan and former director of the agency's counterterrorism center. "It hasn't produced results, and it hasn't particularly produced leads."

The failures of Rewards for Justice can be traced to several factors: weak publicity campaigns in places where al-Qaeda's leadership is based; skepticism that the United States would deliver the money and protect informants; and a mistaken assumption that anyone's loyalty can be bought if the price is high enough.

"The program could use some, well, 'rejuvenation' is the word," said Walter B. Deering, a former State Department official who oversaw Rewards for Justice until 2003. "You can't just put a price on someone's head and expect something to happen."

Unearned Bounties

Rewards for Justice is administered by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which operates Web sites advertising the program in 25 languages.

Which suspects are included on the most-wanted list, as well as the size of their bounties, are decided by a panel of counterterrorism officials from several agencies, including the FBI and the CIA, as well as the Pentagon and the White House.

Since 1984, the program has handed out $77 million to more than 50 tipsters, according to the State Department. The largest single reward, $30 million, went to an informant who enabled the U.S. military to find and kill ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay, in 2003.


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