The Lucrative Bounty Program

In an effort to capture enemy combatants during the War on Terror the United States implemented a bounty program offering monetary rewards for information on, or the surrender of, possible enemy combatants. The bounty system has been beneficial in bringing forward actionable information against enemy combatants because it has functioned as a strong motivator, but that may also have led to the detention of innocent civilians at both Guantanamo Bay and Bagram Airbase. Turning over individuals to U.S. troops was a lucrative business venture for bounty hunters, the Pakistani and Afghan governments, and civilian reward seekers who could convince the U.S. that the person they had captured or were making accusations against, was connected to Al-Qaeda, the Taliban or another terrorist group. The profitability of the practice was acknowledged by former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf who wrote in his memoir In the Line of Fire, “We have captured 689 [enemy combatants] and handed over 369 to the United States. We have earned bounties totaling millions of dollars.”[1]

The bounty program can be looked at from four perspectives. First, the rationale behind implementation of a bounty program to aid U.S. troops appears logical considering the nature of and the location of the War on Terror. Second, the financial incentives offered in exchange for information on or the surrender of possible enemy combatants were arguably too motivating and potentially led to false accusations in pursuit of bigger cash rewards. Third, the criteria used to determine enemy combatants were perhaps overinclusive, with the result of civilians being detained for engaging in common practices of the region regardless of terrorist ties. Finally, the problems that developed during the operation of the bounty program help explain how it is possible that so many civilians were captured and placed in detention. Although a substantial number of the stories regarding capture and detention come from the detainees themselves, there is good reason to believe that these stories are largely accurate, based on the multitude of sources and similarity of the facts involved in each story.


Rationale Behind Implementing the Bounty Program

Despite the issues that have developed from the U.S. implementation of a bounty program, the likely logic and rationale behind its introduction seem practical given the type of war being fought. When the U.S. entered Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight the War on Terror it was entering relatively underdeveloped cities and villages, for an unconventional war. In some of the major cities of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the U.S. may be able to utilize sophisticated technology to track and investigate possible terrorists; however, in a farming village such technology would provide little help. The lack of technological infrastructure in the mountains and farming villages of this area renders surveillance or investigation of computers and phones highly ineffective. Also, the Taliban is known to have significant influence in tribal villages and often the Pakistani government will not interfere with those villages because of the threat posed by Taliban presence. Considering these factors, it is very possible to have a Taliban supporter born and raised in a tribal village in the mountains of northwestern Pakistan who has no technological fingerprint and little to no record with the Pakistani government. In that situation the advanced technology of the U.S. and the Pakistani government records would be largely ineffective in identifying a potential enemy combatant.

With technology proving inefficient due to the geographic location of the targets, it would appear the U.S. employed a bounty program with cash rewards as incentives to entice villagers to act as informants for U.S. troops. The cash incentives in this situation would benefit the U.S. in two ways: first, by gathering informants who could be the troops’ eyes and ears in villages; and second, by gaining rapport and favor with the tribal villages through the money being offered. The U.S.’s attempt to attract this resource can clearly be seen through the leaflets targeting villages, leaflets that are discussed in further detail below.

Although there is no documented connection, the bounty program appears to be an extension of the Rewards for Justice (RFJ) program. RFJ is administered by the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and continues to be a valuable asset in the fight against international terrorism.[2] RFJ was established by the 1984 Act to Combat International Terrorism, which authorizes the Secretary of State to provide rewards for information that leads to an arrest of someone who plans to, or has committed an international terrorist act against U.S. persons or property, or for information that leads to the location of a key terrorist leader.[3] The RFJ is focused on high value terrorist targets, and since its inception the program has paid out $125 million to over 80 people who provided actionable information.[4] RFJ has brought in notable targets such as Uday and Qusay Hussein, as to whom a source came forward with information regarding their location just 18 days after the announcement of a reward; the program was also success in the capture of Ramzi Yousef, one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers.[5] The RFJ is still functional and is currently seeking information on 58 targets and offering rewards between $500,000 and $25 million.[6] Although the RFJ and bounty program in the War on Terror aren’t directly related, it appears the U.S. was attempting to replicate the RFJ’s success in the capture of international terrorists in a particular region for a smaller price.


Impact of the Financial Incentives

The bounty program cash reward of between $3,000 and $5,000 inspired bounty hunters, the Pakistani and Afghan governments, and civilians to go to significant lengths to gather individuals to sell to U.S. troops. There are claims that Pakistani bounty hunters have targeted men, women and children of different nationalities by arresting them at borders or abducting them from their homes as part of random round up arrests.[7] Amnesty International’s Senior Director of Research, Claudio Cordone, has said that, “Hundreds of people have been picked up in mass arrests and many have been sold to the U.S. as terrorists simply on the word of their captors, and transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Airbase or secret detention centers run by the U.S.”[8] Based on the available information about US processing of detainees in the early stages of the war, discussed below, we can infer that at the time that the bounty program was operating, the U.S. was in favor of detaining all potentially dangerous individuals until their actual threat level could be determined at a later date.[9] Knowing that they didn’t need significant evidence to turn someone in as an enemy combatant, the bounty hunters may well have taken advantage of the program and turned over innocent civilians under the pretense that they were legitimate enemy combatants.

One of the more extreme reports of a bounty pursuit came from Brahim Benchekroune, a Moroccan national who was arrested and detained in Pakistan before being sold to the U.S. and eventually transferred to Guantanamo. While describing his detention experience to a Moroccan newspaper, Brahim Benchekroune mentioned that the Pakistanis were so eager to collect on cash bounties that they sold prisoners who were being held on offenses unrelated to terrorism. One example Benchekroune gave was Karama Khamis Khamisain, his cellmate, who was being held on suspicion of drug charges.[10] According to Brahim Benchekroune, the Pakistanis went as far as to prohibit Khamisain from being able to shave, giving him only oil for his beard and kohl to use on his eyes and directing Khamisain to learn to say his prayers and perform religious ablutions so he would look and act more like a Taliban fighter. The Pakistani prison forced Khamisain to do this so it could pass him off as a terrorist suspect and collect another bounty.[11] Brahim Benchekroune also stated that the sales would take place when U.S. representatives with black suitcases full of money would go to the prisons and openly bargain for prisoners. Benchekroune also recalls hearing the applause when the U.S. representatives and Pakistani prison officials came to an agreement of $5,000 per head.[12]

The Khamisain example illustrates the extreme lengths the Pakistani government was willing to go to for a cash reward and the impact the financial incentive had on the region. Like the bounty hunters, the Pakistani prison apparently abused the bounty program and took advantage of the situation to capitalize financially. The U.S. troops were under pressure to produce results and were reluctant to believe that the Pakistani government was intentionally turning over innocent detainees.[13]

As mentioned earlier, the attraction of the bounty program was not reserved solely for bounty hunters or governments. Personal enemies, tribal rivals, neighbors, co-workers and even friends have been referenced as common sources that provided false information and accusations to U.S. forces in pursuit of a cash bounty.  These false accusations may have led to the wrongful detention of innocent individuals.[14] By posting flyers, the U.S. made a point of encouraging local citizens to take part and offer up any information they had. Omran Belhadi, the writer of Justice Pakistan Project’s extensive report on Bagram detainees, offered an example of one such flyer, which read:

“Get wealth and power beyond your dreams…. You can receive millions of dollars helping the anti-Taliban forces catch al-Qa’ida and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life. Pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.”[15]

For some Pakistani men who may only make 14,000 Pakistani rupees ($140) per month, the opportunity to collect $3,000 – $5,000 for a bounty was considerably enticing.[16] The U.S. bounty program’s cash incentive has been an effective motivating factor to the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan; unfortunately it has also encouraged the unlawful arrest and abduction of innocent individuals.


Criteria Used to Determine Enemy Combatants

Another factor that may explain how the U.S. came into possession of numerous possibly innocent and non-dangerous detainees is the criteria used by the U.S. troops to determine which individuals to detain. The proof required to establish an individual as an enemy combatant was minimal and quite vague. In Report on Guantanamo Detainees, Mark and Joshua Denbeaux list some factors that the U.S. cited as evidence of enemy combatant status including “associations with unnamed and unidentified individuals and/or organizations, associations with organizations the members of which would not be allowed into the United States by the Department of Homeland Security, possession of rifles, use of a guest house, possession of Casio watches, and wearing of olive drab clothing.”[17] The Report on Guantanamo Detainees further analyzes these criteria to determine just how common and unpersuasive these factors are in telling an enemy combatant apart from an innocent civilian.

First, the possession of a rifle by any male is rather typical in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The “Kalashnikov Culture” is a remnant of conflict in Afghanistan and a byproduct of the rampant terrorism and drug culture present in both countries.[18] The popularity of rifles in the culture of these two countries does nothing to distinguish a peaceful civilian from a terrorist. The problem is illustrated by a comment in the Report on Guantanamo Detainees from an American college student who spent time in Afghanistan, “There is a big Kalashnikov-rifle culture in Afghanistan, I walked into a restaurant this afternoon to find Kalashnikovs hanging in the place of coats on the rack near the entrance.”[19]

A second factor that isn’t very distinguishing is the use of a “guest house” while traveling in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the region the term “guest house” refers to a very common form of travel accommodation that offers budget rates and breakfast.[20] A “guest house” is so fundamental to travelers in the area that several large international tourism agencies, including American travel agents, advise tourists to expect to stay in a “guest house” in either country.[21] Staying in a “guest house” in either country seems to be so standard that telling an enemy combatant apart from a regular civilian would be near impossible based solely on that fact.

There appear to be several factors in the criteria that aren’t as differentiating as the U.S. thought they might be. It is reasonable to believe that some detainees being held as established enemy combatants based on these criteria were in fact ordinary members of Afghan or Pakistani society engaging in common practices and are not legitimately dangerous terrorists.


Problems with Bounty Program in Practice

The disconnect between the success of the bounty program and the Rewards for Justice program appears to stem from the lack of investigative resources available to the U.S. on the ground to analyze information on potential offenders being turned over. Since the RFJ program has such precise focus on high value targets, the U.S. will likely take an informant’s tip seriously, and thoroughly investigate the tip to confirm accuracy before acting on it or paying for it. With the bounty program on the ground, however, U.S. soldiers did not have nearly the same resources or time to determine which informant tips were accurate and which tips were simply offered for the reward money. In the article Who’s Really Locked Up in Guantanamo? Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, states, “It seems that U.S. forces, inundated by thousands of captives after the Afghan war, didn’t have enough experienced interrogators and interpreters to sort out the actual terrorists from Arabs unaffiliated with Al Qaeda.”[22] Besides the quantity of captives and lack of resources, another factor was that the Pentagon had previously issued instructions for the detention of all “non-Afghan Taliban/foreign fighters.”[23] According to Chris Mackey (a pseudonym of a former interrogator at Kandahar and Bagram), “Strictly speaking, that meant every Arab we encountered was in for a long-term stay and an eventual trip to Cuba.”[24] In light of the lack of resources combined with the reality of the situation laid out by Chris Mackey, it is certainly possibly that some individuals weren’t given sufficient examinations to determine their genuine threat level before being detained.

There are also noteworthy problems with the RFJ program that are applicable to the smaller bounty program as well. The shortcomings of RFJ stem from several factors: lack of publicity in popular Al-Qaeda locations, doubt that the U.S. would deliver on promised money or protect informants, and the sheer unlikelihood that the region’s loyalty can be bought.[25] In 2004, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) went to Pakistan to determine why there was so little information coming from RFJ. The Illinois congressman noted that in a lot of rural areas of Pakistan people were not aware of the existence of the program. Embassy officials were consumed with other work related to the region that took priority over distributing information regarding the RFJ program.[26]

Congressman Kirk also remarked that to many of the people living in a poor tribal village in northwestern Pakistan, the idea of receiving millions of dollars all at once was too overwhelming or abstract for them to believe it. Kirk thought that a smaller reward would be more appealing. However, the smaller bounty program’s offer of between $3,000 and $5,000 may have been too appealing, given the quantity of individuals who were turned over as a result. The larger the reward the more fact finding that had to be done in relation to the informant, and the result was a larger risk for the informant; conversely, the smaller reward required much less verification and much less risk to the informant.

Another strong deterrent to individuals divulging information to the U.S. is the threat of being branded as an informant. A Washington Post article cites Arthur Keller, a former CIA case officer, as saying that attempts at intimidation by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were commonplace in tribal regions of Pakistan.[27] Keller stated that, “Just about every week, somewhere in the tribal areas, a body was found in the road with a note pinned to it saying ‘American spy’.”[28] The threat of death for having been accused of being an informant was effective in preventing people in those tribal regions from taking the risk to speak with the U.S. Perhaps the informants who did come forward to give accurate or false information came from areas where Al-Qaeda and the Taliban had a limited effect.



Exactly how many innocent detainees are being held, or have been held is currently unknown. It is important to consider the source of information; some of the stories come from individuals who were being detained and could simply be lying to protect their reputation. However, there seem to be both free and detained sources who have very similar stories and family members willing to attest to the accuracy of those stories.[29] Also, considering the number of government officials both in Pakistan and Afghanistan and in the U.S. willing to admit to the successes and failures of the program, it is unlikely that all the detainees are lying about the nature of their capture.[30]

It is reasonable to believe that the detainees still in U.S. custody have been investigated and the U.S. has determined which individuals still pose a danger upon release and which are no longer threats and can be repatriated. Unfortunately, at the moment the U.S. does not have detainee transfer agreements in place with the origin countries of many of the detainees, and without such agreements those individuals cannot be repatriated yet. The lack of agreements can be traced to the absence of assurances to the U.S. that once repatriated these individuals will not be tortured in their home country and that there will be measures in place to track their activities and notify the U.S. if they resume terrorist activities. DetainedbyUS will discuss these issues in other forthcoming posts by William Kostas and Jason Scott. Without an agreement in place, releasing the individuals into the origin country would result in diplomatic friction in a region already tense due to ongoing negotiations regarding the U.S.’s planned departure from Afghanistan in 2014.

In summation, it is very possible that civilians detained by the U.S., who have been determined innocent and wrongfully detained, are still stuck in detention with no definite date of release, due in part to the greed of their neighbors or their own government.


[1] Mona Samari, Bounties Paid for Terror Suspects, Human Rights Defender, Jan. 16, 2007, (quoting Pervez Musharraf, In the Line of Fire: A Memoir 237 (2006).

[2] Program Overview, Rewards for Justice, (last visited Oct. 30, 2013).

[3] 18 U.S.C. § 3071 (2012)

[4] Id.

[5] Frequently Asked Questions, Rewards for Justice, (last visited Oct. 13, 2013).

[6] Wanted for Terrorism, Rewards for Justice, (last visited Oct. 13, 2013).

[7] Samari supra note 1.

[8] Id.

[9] See text and source at footnote 24, infra.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Tom Malinowski, Who’s Really Locked up in Guantanamo?, Human Rights Watch (Mar. 16 2006),

[14] Omran Belhadi. Justice Pakistan Project, Closing Bagram The Other Guantanamo, Justice Project Pakistan 44 (released 2013), available at

[15] Samari, supra note 1 (quoting a U.S. bounty program flyer).

[16] Belhadi, supra note 13, at 22.

[17] Mark Denbeaux & Joshua Denbeaux, Report on Guantanamo Detainees 17 (Sept. 25, 2005), available at

(last visited Oct. 14, 2013).

[18] Id. at 19.

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at 20.

[21] Id.

[22] Malinowski, supra note 12.

[23] Mark Pope, How Did So Many Innocent People End Up in Guantanamo Bay?, Reprieve (Aug. 30, 2012), .

[24] Id.

[25] Craig Witlock, Bounties a Bust in Hunt for Al-Qaeda, Wash. Post (May 17, 2008),

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Belhadi, supra note 13, at 45.

[30] Id.