Transnational Criminal Organizations

Throwback Thursday: Rewards and Bounties

By Cody M. Poplin, Sebastian Brady
Thursday, January 29, 2015, 9:17 PM

On January 5, Dominic Ongwen, senior commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army, was captured by Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR). Subsequently, the rebels transferred Ongwen to the US military, who has maintained a small force in the region since 2011 to assist in the hunt for the LRA’s commanders. The question was what to do next: Ultimately Ongwen was handed over to African Union forces, who in turn transferred him into the custody of the CAR---which finally transferred him to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in mid-January. Ongwen is now facing trial at the Hague, where he stands charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Ongwen intrigue transcends the complex relationship between the United States and the ICC. (As is well known, the United States is not a party to the treaty creating the ICC, but nevertheless has cooperated in some of the court's activities---including the pursuit of notorious international criminals.) In 2013, the US State Department had placed a $5 million bounty on the commander, promising payment in return for information leading to Ongwen’s capture. After ceding custody of Ongwen to the United States, the Seleka rebels attempted to claim the money. Payment, however, has not been forthcoming---the obstacles being the rebels' role in violence throughout the CAR, and their past dealings with the LRA.

Rewards programs are the subject of this week's Throwback Thursday. Below, we sketch out a basic history of the United States' offering of rewards for help in getting bad guys; describe the current regime under which the United States exchanges cash for information and assistance; and overview, in the most broad outlines, some of the challenges that the rewards setup can pose.


The Ongwen case has diverse and deep historical roots.

Interestingly, the most famous precedent long predates the legal framework's development---and in any event, didn't involve any offers of payment by the United States: In March of 1916, the legendary Mexican general Pancho Villa, a revolutionary who once enjoyed active US support, crossed the US-Mexico border and attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico, killing and wounding dozens of Americans. The raid shocked the US government into action, and Congress authorized an ultimately futile military expedition led by General John Pershing to bring Villa to justice.

Others would succeed where Pershing did not. Eventually, Villa was assassinated in 1923. And, while the facts surrounding Villa’s death remain uncertain, one person asked to be compensated for bringing about his demise: In the 1950s, one of Villa's self-proclaimed killers, Saenz Pardo, asserted his right to a $50,000 bounty that the U.S. Congress allegedly had offered for Villa's capture or death. Decades later, Pardo’s family continues his hunt. Their quest has been made quixotic, however, by the US government’s insistence that the bounty never existed. (Apparently, the offer was described in a congressional resolution---which was introduced in the federal legislature but did not pass.)

There are more contemporary examples, which reflect the United States' development, over time, of a more programmatic approach. The United States offered millions for information on Bin Laden. And in 1995 a man approached US diplomats in Pakistan, and offered information that lead to the key plotter of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Yousef. The informer received $2 million from federal authorities.

Later, as part of its campaign in Iraq, the US offered a $25 million reward for assistance in apprehending Saddam Hussein. In December 2003, when Hussein was captured by US forces acting on information received from an informant, a question arose regarding who---if anyone---might be entitled to the payout. The BBC eventually revealed that the information which led to Hussein’s capture came from Mohammed Ibrahim Omar al-Musslit, a close associate of Hussein's. However, it was later reported that al-Musslit only divulged Hussein’s location after arrest and coercive interrogation, and was thus deemed ineligible for the bounty. The Saddam reward would go unclaimed---though cash would be paid to informants whose contributions led to the location of his sons.

There was also the arrest of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia who was convicted of war crimes in 2012. In 2002, in the midst of the Second Liberian Civil War, Taylor had resigned his presidency and accepted exile in Nigeria as part of a peace agreement with rebel groups. In doing so, Taylor shielded himself from prosecution for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity during Sierra Leone’s own brutal, decade-long civil war. But Congress sought to encourage Taylor's arrest, by means of language buried in the “Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan Security and Reconstruction Act, 2004”: “[o]f the funds previously appropriated under this heading," read the statute, "$2,000,000 is for rewards for an indictee of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.”

Despite this enticing sum, it seems US diplomatic pressure led to Taylor's arrest, with Nigeria agreeing to hand him over five days before President Olusegun Obasanjo was scheduled to meet with President George W. Bush. Taylor was repatriated to Liberia and subsequently extradited to Sierra Leone after he was caught by Nigerian border security forces as he tried to flee the country to Cameroon in 2006. (He would ultimately be tried in the Hague by the Special Court for Sierra Leone---in facilities built for but at the time not yet used by the ICC.)

The Rewards Framework 

The payment by the United States for information leading to the apprehension of international terrorists and war criminals is now managed through several distinct rewards programs---“bounties” being associated with distasteful characters from Dog the Bounty Hunter to Boba Fett.

Chief among these is the “Rewards for Justice” (RFJ) initiative. Established by a 1984 Act to Combat International Terrorism, RFJ was created partially in response to the series of Hezbollah bombings that targeted US facilities abroad from 1983-84. Originally, the law set a limit of $500,000 for rewards and mandated that any reward of over $100,000 be approved by either the Attorney General or the US President. And, while the approval process has remained rigorous throughout---any significant payment must be approved by a board of several executive branch agencies---the payments have ballooned: Information leading to the capture of Ayman al-Zawahiri now goes for $25 million.

Other, related programs have grown up around Rewards for Justice. There is now a War Crimes Rewards Program, a Transnational Organized Crime Rewards Program, and a Narcotics Rewards Program. Whereas the Rewards for Justice program was limited to individuals suspected of terrorism, this proliferation of bounty programs allows the United States to use cash incentives in order to apprehend many other undesirables not encompassed within the 1984 legislation. Dominic Ongwen, the captured LRA commander, was targeted by the War Crimes program, which President Barack Obama recently expanded; the Transnational Organized Crimes program is these days offering money for information on wildlife traffickers. And the Narcotics program has offered rewards in connection with the pursuit of several leaders of Latin American drug cartels. In total, the United States currently has $613,250,000 in cash rewards which informants might claim.

The National Counterterrorism Center calls the RFJ program “one of the most valuable US government assets in the fight against international terrorism.” As noted above, Uday and Qusay Hussein, Saddam Hussein’s sons, were killed based on a tip given by an anonymous informant, who received $30 million for his/her trouble. The same program also led to the 1995 capture of Ramzi Yousef. The Narcotics Rewards Program has paid out over $88 million in rewards in its almost 30 years of operations. And Ongwen was seemingly handed over to the United States in part because his captors desired to get their hands on a US-issued, $5 million pot.

Of course, an offer of cash---even oodles of cash---doesn't always lead to arrest. Hafiz Saeed, the infamous founder of the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), remains at large in Pakistan, despite a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture. Saeed remains a very public figure; he held a rally in Karachi that appeared to be supported by Pakistani security officials just last week, taunting the United States as President Obama visited New Delhi. Other high-value (so to speak) terrorist leaders also remain at large, like Ayman al Zawahiri and Mullah Omar.

Legal and Policy Challenges

Like most national security programs, the United States' rewards regime has its complexities.

Some are legal. Judging by its actions, the United States seemingly concluded that Ongwen's mere handover to the African Union, and then the CAR, and then the ICC, did not run counter to the noxious “American Servicemembers’ Protection Act" (ASPA). Here Congress famously prohibited the US government (among other things) from providing undefined "support" to the ICC, though the statute elsewhere built in executive authority to waive some problematic restrictions. Later, in 2013, President Obama signed a bill expanding the War Crimes Rewards Program. Whereas this originally covered persons indicted by special war crimes tribunals in Sierra Leone, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, the 2013 bill expanded the program to include those indicted by any multinational tribunal---including the ICC. The change made the ASPA's restrictions at least theoretically relevant for purposes of the United States' rewards programs, which were by definition meant to help bring about the transfer of foreign nationals to ICC custody eventually. Still, in Ongwen's case the United States may have a facially plausible case for compliance with ASPA: It was CAR, and not the United States, which brought about Ongwen's final transfer to the ICC---and CAR was free to change its mind.

Beyond the legal questions like some broader questions of policy, the very prospect of payment can lead to bad information. This is true in any cash-based incentive system, including the United States' overt rewards programs. But the phenomenon is especially acute during high-stakes operations by the military and intelligence services. To name one familiar example, during the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the US military distributed pamphlets offering thousands of dollars for information on Taliban and al Qaeda fighters---that is, for any individuals generally counting as one or both. Some of the tracts made it into Pakistan, where opportunists reportedly began rounding up “suspects,” grooming them to look like terrorists, and selling them to the Pakistani intelligence service---which later handed the unlucky detainees to the US military in return for cash. In his memoir, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf charged that through these operations the Pakistani ISI transferred 369 suspected militants to the US military in return for “millions of dollars."

False denunciations aren't the only policy dilemma. Consider the Ongwen saga. His captors were a group of rebels that, since seizing control of the country in 2013, has inflicted continual violence on the Central African Republic. Moreover, the same rebels have apparently been working in concert with the LRA, Ongwen’s brutal outfit. For obvious and sound reasons, the United States has explicitly banned payment to this and similar outfits, apparently concluding that the ban (and the prospect of not paying a small category of morally dubious informers and handers-over) won't discourage other persons with knowledge from coming forward.

Finally, there's the question of effectiveness. In areas where many of the world’s most wanted live, awareness of the rewards program is bleakly low. According to a 2008 Washington Post piece, even when Pakistani locals were in principle willing to rat out a member of al Qaeda, the would-be informants were also unsure of whether to trust the United States. Moreover, Al Qaeda maintained its safe havens through repression and intimidation, convincing people that not even the United States can protect them or their families. The RFJ program does offer protection for informants through a witness protection regime, but that can only work if a populations places its faith in the United States in the first place. And that's what was lacking with regards to Al Qaeda, per the Post piece. To be sure, the rewards programs had greater success in places like Iraq during the occupation in the early 2000s, where a large presence of US military forces gave US claims of protection a measure of legitimacy. The bounties have also proven more successful in the Philippines and in Thailand, where the United States is viewed in a somewhat more favorable light. US counterterrorism officials should study these successes, in order to discern portable lessons that might be applied to reward activities in more challenging regions.