WASHINGTON  - From the unruly areas of Pakistan to Philippine jungles and the deserts of Iraq, simple matchbooks and posters are proving an effective US tool in the hunt for the world’s most wanted men.
Since its launch in 1984, the Rewards for Justice program run by the Diplomatic Security Bureau of the State Department has paid out $125 million in rewards to 80 people for information leading to the capture of terrorists. Pictures of the wanted men are printed on posters, matchbooks and pens along with messages in the local languages and dialects asking for information and providing instructions on how to hand over tip-offs or ring a hotline.
More modern methods to pass the message are also used, such as Twitter and Facebook feeds, a dedicated website, and mobile phone alerts.
Top of the program’s wanted list now is Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, with a reward of up to $25 million for information leading to his capture.
The Egyptian doctor, who took over as Al-Qaeda leader after US commandos shot dead Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, has been indicted for his role in the 1998 twin bombings of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. He is one of just 53 people who the United States is seeking to bring before the courts for terror attacks, and who now have a price on their heads.
“The genesis of this program actually came about as a result of the bombings of our embassy in Kuwait, and bombings of our facilities in Beirut,” Acting Assistant Director for Diplomatic Security Kurt Rice told AFP. “The government after that decided we have to look for another tool to try and get information and bring these people to justice.”
Last month Alabama-born Omar Hamami, dubbed the rapping jihadist, became one of five Americans on the list, wanted for ties to the Al-Qaeda linked Shebab insurgents evading capture in Somalia.
The program is also still seeking information on cases in which the trail appears to have gone cold, including the 1983 attack on a Marine Corps barracks in Beirut and the 1988 bombing of PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Despite the dangers, the rewards can be tantalizingly huge in impoverished countries. One informant earned $30 million for leading the US to Uday and Qusay Hussein, the sons of late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Thanks to the tip-off, the two were tracked down in July 2003 by a secretive special operations task force sent in to capture them in northern Mosul. A four-hour firefight ensued, in which both men were killed. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the 1993 bomber of the World Trade Center, was caught after someone picked up a matchbook bearing his picture in Pakistan and tipped off the US embassy in Islamabad.
Yousef, the nephew of the self-confessed architect of the September 11, 2001 attacks Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was arrested by Pakistani forces in 1995 and extradited to the US. He was tried and sentenced to two life sentences.
“This program is fairly simple, it’s fairly elegant, it saves lives,” said Rice. “All we are trying to do is give people an outlet, because people intrinsically often just want to help.
“We’re giving them the ability in a safe, very secure manner to provide us information so we can get these people off the streets.”
He stresses that confidentiality is key to protecting the identities of the informants. “We’ve given this money out, and that obviously makes them a target wherever they are in the world,” he said.
The size of the reward depends on how critical the information is to the wanted person’s capture and is determined by an inter-agency committee which then recommends an amount to the secretary of state.
A group of Filipinos in 2007 shared in a $5 million reward for helping to locate one of the high-ranking leaders of the Islamic Abu Sayyaf, Khadaffy Janjalani, and then identify his body after he was killed in a shoot-out with Philippine forces.
And while the Diplomatic Security bureau cannot provide physical protection for informants, it has helped relocate some people to safer places, including to the United States.
Since 2001, the program has also focused on prevention as well as tracking down those already accused of terrorist acts.
“We would rather save lives than solve crimes. Of course solving the crimes is critical to us, but if we can stop, if we can prevent that’s fantastic,” Rice said.