November 29, 2009: Another senior Taliban leader has been captured because of a reward. In this case, $120,000 was paid to a Pakistani informer who helped police arrest Abdullah Shah Mehsud. He is one of 18 close associates of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud who are all being sought with the help of $5 million in rewards. Hakimullah Mehsud's predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, had a $5 million reward for his death or capture, and the Taliban are still trying to identify who collected it. Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a U.S. Hellfire missile, based on information provided by an unknown, but now very wealthy, informer.
More Pakistanis and Afghans are taking advantage of the reward program, and living to spend the money. That's a big change, and it has made the Taliban leadership, on both sides of the border, very uneasy. The U.S. has given Pakistan's main intelligence agency; ISI (Inter Service Intelligence agency), tens of millions dollars for rewards, since September 11, 2001. The U.S. money was paid as rewards for the capture or killing of wanted Islamic terrorists. The live ones were turned over to the United States. Pakistan says it captured over 600 of these terrorists, but the actual number is believed to be greater. The U.S. did not look closely at exactly who got the reward money.
Osama bin Laden has had a $25 million price on his head since late 2001 (before that it was $5 million). With that much money at stake, why hasn't someone ratted him out by now? The main reason is that large cash rewards usually, but not always, work. Getting someone to drop a dime (make a phone call) to turn someone in for a reward only works if there are phones available.
Back in 1984, the United States began offering rewards of one to seven million dollars for information leading to the capture of terrorists, and lesser amounts to those who provided evidence against a terrorist or provided good information about a planned terrorist act. The informer, and his family, were also offered removal to a safe place (including the United States).
By September 11, 2001, five major terrorists had been captured because of this program. Over $6 million was been paid out to in over 20 cases. Some 42 percent of the informants requested security protection and another 42 percent sought relocation for themselves and family members to another country or region to avoid of retaliation.
Since then, the number of high value people captured with this program has more than doubled, and the amount of money paid out has increased even more. However, one problem with the reward program is that it does not pay attention to the realities of international terrorism. Most major terrorists, like Osama bin Laden, are well protected and hidden. Sure, there are people who know where they are, and can get in contact with people around the bad guy. But an operation to nab one of these men requires a getting the message out to those who have the information, and providing informants with a realistic way to call in, and then collect.
Getting the word out is not as easy as it sounds. The FBI has undertaken several advertising campaigns in Pakistan, using matchbook covers, posters and other media to remind people in the tribal territories that rewards of up to twenty-five million dollars are being offered for prominent al Qaeda members. In addition to the cash rewards, "relocation (to another country, for the tipster and immediate family) is available". At least half a dozen al Qaeda big shots have been caught this way, and rewards paid. This time around, an American al Qaeda member (Adam Yahiye Gadahn), who often appears in English language al Qaeda videos, is also sought. Gadahn has a million dollars on his head. The proliferation of cell phone use in the tribal areas (on both sides of the border) is expected to make it easier for tipsters to make contact.
Collecting the reward is difficult. The wanted men are surrounded by bodyguards and aides. They hide out in neighborhoods or villages full of people who share their beliefs. There are also cultural problems. Most of the al Qaeda big shots who have not yet been captured or killed are known to be (or believed to be) taking refuge among pro-Taliban Pushtun tribes along the Afghan border. The people there are generally poor, illiterate and not very well informed. Many have never seen anyone outside their village or valley. Most of the people with modern gadgets (like cell phones) are working for the terrorists. The people with some education and wealth, like local tribal leaders, have to worry about their large families. Anyone who turns in bin Laden would be marked for murder if they suddenly displayed signs of wealth.
The fact is, there are lots of spies in the tribal areas. Selling information to outsiders has long been a recognized (if not entirely approved) way for a poor tribesman to make some money, or earn some valuable favors. But getting stuff out is difficult for these people, who have little privacy in their lives, and are constantly under the control of family and tribal elders. You can't just walk out, either. Wandering through the territory of another tribe or clan (as in the next valley over), can get you killed. Strangers are seen as enemies, and treated accordingly.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops have learned to forget about the big payoffs, and concentrate on the small ones. As U.S. Army Special Forces operators have long known (and constantly teach the regular army troops they work with), little favors (that won't be noticed by the Taliban enforcers) get you little bits of information. These bits add up, and some have led to nailing whales (guys with big prices on their heads). One of the more popular favors in the backcountry is medical care. Out there, not much is to be had. For this reason, the two medics in each Special Forces Alpha Detachment ("A-Team") have been taught to treat common maladies encountered in poor, isolated, areas. An astute diagnoses, and prompt application of some antibiotics can save the life of someone dear to the heart of somebody else with information you need. Sometimes the troops will bring a surgeon in, to perform a lifesaving (or life altering) procedure. This yields much good will, and loosens tongues.
The big thing about medical care is that it's not as visible as a pile of cash (which usually results in something flashy being bought, and dangerous queries from the local Taliban), but means a lot more than mere things. Pakistani or Afghan doctors don't like travelling to the tribal territories. Too dangerous. Those who can afford medical care, travel to a town or city that has it. But the U.S. and NATO soldiers have access to drugs and medical care wherever they are. Sharing it is often more valuable, or at least more practical, than a $25 million reward.