ILIGAN CITY -- The capture of Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, whether dead or alive, had a hefty price tag of $5 million from the United States Government which has been aggressively pursuing global jihadis after the deadly 9/11 attacks in New York.
How the bounty influenced the overall conduct of the operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao is not yet established.
But using the experience with Marwan, a Jakarta-based think-tank urged a rethinking of the role of rewards in the drive against Southeast Asian terrorists.
In its March 2015 report Killing Marwan in Mindanao, which drew only little attention then, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (Ipac) noted that the momentum in the hunt for Marwan was “driven in part by the bounty, (and) in part by what appears to have been a single-minded focus on his death—not his arrest.”
IPAC added that these “may have militated against any serious effort to think about (the) impact” of the operation.
The raid against the Malaysian terrorist last year led the commandos of the Philippine National Police’s Special Action Force (SAF) to a battle scene where it engaged, on one hand, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters who have been coddling Marwan, and on the other, MILF fighters who were surprised to see government security forces in their midst.
The fighting left 44 SAF commandos, 17 Moro guerrillas, and five civilians dead, and precipitated a national controversy that jeopardized almost two decades of peacemaking efforts with the MILF.
As with other terrorists, the bounty for Marwan’s capture was put up by the Rewards for Justice program of the US government.
The program was credited for aiding the downfall of key Abu Sayyaf leaders by encouraging the availability of information that led authorities to their locations.
As of 2012, the Texas-based intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting, Inc. (Stratfor) said more than $11 million in bounties were paid in the Philippines by the program.
The program’s website listed as part of its success stories the capture of Philippine-based terrorists, all key figures of the Abu Sayyaf: Toting Craft Hanno, Khadaffy Janjalani, Abu Solaiman and Hamsiraji Marusi Sali.
It paid $100,000 for Hanno, $5 million for Janjalani, $5 million for Solaiman, and $1 million for Sali.
“The huge bounties placed on the heads of foreign jihadis have helped to burnish their reputations as world class terrorists, perhaps out of proportion to their actual roles,” Ipac said.
“They encourage killing high-value targets rather than making any effort to arrest them alive,” Ipac added.
A Brussels-based think-tank already warned in 2008 about the distorting effect of monetary rewards in the drive against terrorists in the country.
In its report Counter-Insurgency vs. Counter-Terrorism in Mindanao, the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted how military informants “equate amount of bounty with the importance of the individual concerned.”
It cited the case of then Philippine-based Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) operatives Umar Patek and Dulmatin.
Dulmatin, who reports to Umar Patek, commanded $10 million in reward for his capture while his boss only fetched $1 million.
ICG also cited the views of an unnamed senior official of the Philippine National Police (PNP) who said that the bounties “were leading to undue focus in individuals at the expense of more carefully thought-through strategies.”
Ipac suggested that the bounties led to “many false alarms.” However, the ICG was more explicit in saying that the rewards, or the rush to claim these, led to premature pronouncements of the deaths of high-prized targets.
Examples of this were the many death announcements by authorities of Marwan and Dulmatin.
Today, the Rewards for Justice program listed four wanted terrorists in East Asia and the Pacific region whose capture will merit its bounty.
They are Isnilon Hapilon of Abu Sayyaf, up to $5 million, Radullan Sahiron of Abu Sayyaf, up to $1 million, and Indonesian JI operative Aris Sumarsono alias Zulkarnaen or Daud, up to $5 million.
Abdul Basit Usman of the Maguindanao-based Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), who was killed last year, was still in the list, with a reward of up to $1 million.
“Other aspects of the US role have been examined since the Mamasapano incident took place, but Rewards for Justice has not come under much scrutiny,” Ipac noted.