US bounties for West African terrorists are lavish, but don’t get any ideas

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For the first time, the US State department has offered rewards—up to $23 million—for information leading to the location and capture of key terrorist leaders in West Africa, including two from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Some veteran terrorism watchers are cringing, and expect this will set off a bounty hunting spree for the accused ringleaders. A few million bucks, they note, goes a long way in Mali or Nigeria.

The Obama administration says it will pay $5 million for information leading to the location of Yahya Abu el Hammam, leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Signed-In-Blood Battalion leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar. It will pay $3 million for AQIM leader Malik Abou Abdelkarim and Oumar Ould Hamaha of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. And it will pay up to $7 million for information leading to the location of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram.

For anyone considering actually trying to obtain one of these rewards, here are some reasons to reconsider:

  • You’re likely to be killed just for trying. These are some of the most brutal militants in a world full of similarly bad actors. They operate in a lawless tribal environment in which anyone even asking questions about them will likely be grievously harmed, along with their families. The US has a nice rundown of their activities in the links above, and Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal has even more here.
  • Finding them is the easy part. All five are protected by concentric rings of bodyguards, militias, tribal security forces, and  sympathetic local officials. So even if you find them, there’s no guarantee the US military or host government will go after them. “Anyone can be found, and a lot of people already know where these guys are,” says Robert Young Pelton, a veteran bounty hunter who has located many of the people on the State department’s Rewards for Justice list in Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Mexico, and Cuba. “The problem,” Pelton said Tuesday, “is the feds won’t move on them.’’
  • The system is rigged against you. It’s virtually impossible to get the US government to cough up the reward money. The State department says the program has paid more than $125 million to more than 80 people since its inception in 1984. Pelton and others are deeply skeptical, especially when it comes to rewards for senior terrorists.

Two State department officials acknowledged that there are tremendous hoops to jump through. They told Quartz on Tuesday that the US won’t even discuss the potential for reward money until after the alleged terrorist is captured or killed. Then potential rewardees must be nominated by a US government agency and prove that their information was invaluable, including possibly testifying at trial.

A secret inter-agency rewards committee and, ultimately, the secretary of State, also have to sign off.  “There’s no guarantee,” one official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “There are a lot of factors going into this.’’