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Could Putin’s $50 Million Bounty Really Bring in the Metrojet Bombers?

Reward money has a mixed record of producing results in both terrorism and criminal cases.

Putin's gonna getcha. Image by Marina Lystseva via Wikimedia Commons.

On November 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed that investigations had confirmed what many long suspected: The downing of the St. Petersburg-bound Metrojet Flight 9268 over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on October 31, which killed 224 people, was caused bya terrorist bomb. Hot on the tail of the Paris terror attacks and Russia’s increased bombardments in Syria, many read this announcement in terms of its influence on the global war against the Islamic State. Yet relatively few commented on another element of Putin’s comments—namely, the fact that he offered a $50 million bounty via the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB) to anyone who could provide the state with intelligence leading to the arrest of those responsible for the attack.

Given the scale of the manhunt for the perpetrators that’s already underway and led by skilled investigators worldwide, it seemed odd that Putin would call for public assistance in such a seemingly Wild West manner. But Putin’s not alone in this tactic. Many nations, the United States included, use bounties (albeit usually smaller) in the quest to catch terrorists. Just this May, the American government put out a $10 million reward for information leading to the capture of the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and a combined $10 million more for three other major terrorists. Although it’s hard to evaluate these largely opaque programs, they don’t seem to have a great record of actually bringing in terrorists. And yet the United States still claims that there’s indirect value in such bounties.

We don’t know much about Russia’s bounty program, but we can make some guesses about its value based on America’s better-documented (although still hazy) experiences. Although bounties have long been offered on and off, from office to office, the nation formed a central antiterrorist bounty system in 1984 after bombings on U.S. facilities in Kuwait and Lebanon. Operated by the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Services office and dubbed the Rewards for Justice program, it started by offering $500,000 payments for information on select terrorists or enemies of the state—cash fronted by taxpayers via yearly appropriations to the Emergencies in Diplomatic and Consular Services budget. Over the years the rewards have crept up slowly as other government branches and private-sector partners have added to the pot, jumping significantly in 2001 after the Patriot Act gave the program leeway to make larger rewards. Government workers are ineligible to receive these bounties, which were designed specifically to coax information out of perhaps-reticent civilians in the States and beyond; the government claims to have paid out at least $125 million in rewards over the past three-plus decades—a considerable lump of dough.

A State Department representative publicly hands over a payment to an informant whose identity is concealed.

The State Department is not always forthcoming on who received the rewards (understandable, as some of the funds have to go into witness protection) or which criminals were apprehended with the information. They do, however, like to boast that in 1991 an informant tipped them off to a pending attack by the Iraqi Intelligence Service against American facilities in Bangkok, Thailand, during the Persian Gulf War. They also credit the program with the 1995 apprehension of Abdel Basit, also known as Ramzi Yousef, one of the architects of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The awards are made after an apprehension, must be approved by the Secretary of State, and may be prorated or shared. The largest such payout, $30 million, went to one man who turned over Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, in 2003 during the rapid toppling of their father’s regime in Iraq by the United State.

This scant information isn’t enough to draw judgments about the program’s efficacy. But we can look to the world of domestic bounties from which it likely drew its inspiration to get some sense of its merits. Nationwide, officials at every level, as well as private organizations like Crime Stoppers (which has perhaps 1,000 chapters across the country), have shelled out unknown gobs of cash to catch petty to major criminals. The feds claim that they spend up to $100 million a year on bounties; their fee for information leading to the capture of James “Whitey” Bulger hit $2 million—a sum calculated largely based on the criminal’s acts and notoriety.

Boosters of the system argue that the draw of cash is the best way to appeal to human nature, drawing out, if not a fugitive’s friends and family, then those others around him who might otherwise not have felt a compulsion to come forward. News of a large bounty can also give a case a huge media boost, which can drastically increase vigilance and capture rates, save time and money, and improve the security of civilians. That’s all logic that applies, in theory at least, to the search for terrorist bounty targets as well.

A 2008 Wanted poster for Sirajuddin “Siraj” Haqqani

Detractors argue that the more attention an award brings to a case, the less likely people will be to come forward. Some might fear the spotlight, especially if they run with dangerous crowds. Others, like family and friends (who are the most useful sources in most investigations and might be on the fence about informing), might be put off by the seeming commodification of the life involved. (Although in the case of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski’s brother and sister-in-law turned him in for $1 million; if the cash didn’t motivate them, it didn’t hinder them either.) The deluge of bad tips that often follow a bounty’s announcement can also clog up the works of an investigation, requiring extra manpower or diverting resources from other avenues of pursuit. Some also worry that bounties will be used by one criminal organization to weaken its foes, buying the informant group some cash and breathing room to cover its own transgressions.

It’s hard to evaluate the merits of these arguments because the results of bounties are highly erratic and understudied. A 2013 review of major domestic bounties since 2008 found that only 15 of 372 cases yielded payouts (although that does not reflect how many tips, successful or not, were generated). That’s hardly definitive data, but it does suggest that there’s not much financial risk in offering large rewards, even if the payoff is also relatively low. What limited evidence we have from the world of terrorism bounties suggests that similar rules apply. But we can also observe that increasing the size of a terrorist’s bounty doesn’t seem to do much. Major militant figures are usually surrounded by true believers and in tight control of their environment, to the extent that a bounty wouldn’t threaten them; it’s only when their power starts to wane that dissidents might get up the courage to turn them in. In this sense, these bounties may not do much to address serious terrorist threats, but will occasionally speed up the apprehension of those on the outs, who law enforcement might have pinned down eventually using surveillance and old-school sleuthing.

U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Philippines Kristie A. Kenney gives her opening remarks during a Rewards for Justice award ceremony.

Yet law enforcement and anti-terror officials alike seem smitten with bounties even if they don’t have a great success rate or much research behind them. In domestic cases, rewards are now common for everything from catching murderers to stopping petty theft—rewards can be as low as $100 in the latter cases. For local and national politicians, a bounty can be a powerful signaling tool, showing people that they’re ready to put their money where their mouths are on issues of security. Given the low claim rates on rewards and the high cost of any major ongoing investigation, putting out a bounty is relatively inexpensive, can send a clear message, and if you keep your expectations for results relatively low, can even yield some appreciable results now and then.

It’s impossible to say if this is Putin’s logic in issuing a bounty for information on the Metrojet bombers. But it’s probably fair to guess that signaling is a big part of Russia’s $50 million decision. Being issued alongside strong words about terrorism and a recommitment to action in Syria, the bounty announcement was a way to show how dead-set Putin is on justice and retribution. And if the reward happens to jar loose any unexpected information of real value, then so be it. As long as Russia’s not banking on that $50 million yielding fruit, it might as well make the offer and see what happens.

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