Counter-Terrorism: Russia Learns To Kill With Kindness


October 20, 2013: Over the last decade Russia and the United States have been cooperating more closely in dealing with Islamic terrorism. While a lot of this is about exchanging information on wanted terrorists and what they are up to, there has also been some detailed discussions about counter-terror techniques. While some Russian techniques are illegal in the West (more extreme forms of torture and taking relatives of terror suspects’ hostage) the Russians have found some Western methods useful. In particular, the Russians have adopted the U.S. practice of offering large rewards for not just the most senior terrorists but for a lot of lower ranking ones as well. The Russians were impressed at the large number of terrorists the Americans captured or killed this way. The Russians also learned, and adopted, other American ideas that made the reward program very effective. This included adopting the American Witness Protection Program (“Witsec”). The U.S. began this program in 1970, to encourage witnesses against organized crime (which had a reputation for killing witnesses) to testify in court. The Russians were impressed at how effective Witsec has been in protecting those within the program, and the U.S. provided the Russians with assistance in putting together a Russian version. This included the addition of a few embellishments, like greater use of plastic surgery and putting some people in the program outside Russia. Once word of the Russian Witsec got around, more people were willing to risk talking about Islamic terrorists for the reward money.

Meanwhile, the American program continues to provide useful tips on where bad guys are. Informants are quietly paid and sometimes moved, with their families, to a safer place where they can spend the reward money without fear of terrorist assassins seeking vengeance. The U.S. often uses the tips to kill terrorists via missile armed UAVs. While capturing these fellows alive is preferred, that is often not practical if they are deep in bandit country. While you can launch a large commando operation, there are not sufficient resources for a lot of these raids and with each one there’s the risk of losing some of your commandos or support troops (like helicopter crews). So the unexpected missile is the only alternative to nothing at all. 

While the media likes to make much of terrorists with multimillion dollar rewards on their heads, most of the terrorists are captured or killed because of much smaller rewards, often less than $100,000 and rarely more than a few hundred thousand dollars. There are dozens of terrorists with multimillion dollar rewards attached but these are the best protected and well hidden people. Often these senior bad guys are eventually located via several less-costly underlings who are identified via smaller rewards. This is especially the case if these underlings can be captured and interrogated.

Year by year more Pakistanis and Afghans are taking advantage of the reward program and living to spend the money. That's a big change, and it has made the Taliban leadership, on both sides of the border, very uneasy. The U.S. has given Pakistan's main intelligence agency, ISI (Inter Service Intelligence agency), tens of millions of dollars for rewards since September 11, 2001. The U.S. money was paid as rewards for the capture or killing of wanted Islamic terrorists. The live ones were turned over to the United States. Pakistan says it captured over 800 of these terrorists, but the actual number is believed to be greater. The U.S. did not look closely at exactly who got the reward money.

Osama bin Laden had a $25 million price on his head since late 2001 (before that it was $5 million). Did anyone collect all or part of that reward? Because of the way Witsec works that will be a secret for a long time. With that much money at stake, many people wondered why someone had not ratted him out by sooner. The main reason was that large cash rewards usually, but do not always, work. Getting someone to drop a dime (make a phone call) to turn someone in for a reward only works if there are phones available and faith in the ability of those paying the reward to ensure the recipients will live to spend it.

It was back in 1984 that the United States began offering rewards of 1 to 7 million dollars for information leading to the capture of terrorists and lesser amounts to those who provided evidence against a terrorist or provided good information about a planned terrorist act. The informer, and his family, were also offered removal to a safe place (including the United States).

By September 11, 2001, 5 major terrorists had been captured because of this program. Over $6 million has been paid out in over 20 cases. Some 42 percent of the informants requested security protection and another 42 percent sought relocation for themselves and family members to another country or region to avoid retaliation.

Since then, the number of high value people captured via this program has more than tripled and the amount of money paid out has increased even more. However, one problem with the reward program is that it does not pay attention to the realities of international terrorism. Most major terrorists, like Osama bin Laden, are well protected and hidden. Sure, there are people who know where they are and can get in contact with people around the bad guy. But an operation to nab one of these men requires getting the message out to those who have the information and providing informants with a realistic way to call in and then collect.

Getting the word out is not as easy as it sounds. The FBI has undertaken several advertising campaigns in Pakistan, using matchbook covers, posters, and other media to remind people in the tribal territories that rewards of up to twenty-five million dollars are being offered for prominent al Qaeda members. In addition to the cash rewards, "relocation (to another country, for the tipster and immediate family) is available." At least half a dozen al Qaeda big shots have been caught this way and rewards paid.

Collecting the reward is difficult. The wanted men are surrounded by bodyguards and aides. They hide out in neighborhoods or villages full of people who share their beliefs. There are also cultural problems. Most of the al Qaeda big shots who have not yet been captured or killed are known to be (or believed to be) taking refuge among pro-Taliban Pushtun tribes along the Afghan border. The people there are generally poor, illiterate, and not very well informed. Many have never seen anyone outside their village or valley. Most of the people with modern gadgets (like cell phones) are working for the terrorists. The people with some education and wealth, like local tribal leaders, have to worry about their large families. Anyone who turns in someone carrying a huge reward would be marked for murder if they suddenly displayed signs of wealth.

The fact is, there are a lot of spies in the tribal areas. Selling information to outsiders has long been a recognized (if not entirely approved) way for a poor tribesman to make some money, or earn some valuable favors. But getting stuff out is difficult for these people, who have little privacy in their lives and are constantly under the control of family and tribal elders. You can't just walk out, either. Wandering through the territory of another tribe or clan (as in the next valley over), can get you killed. Strangers are seen as enemies and treated accordingly. Cell phones changed that over the last decade and the Islamic terrorists tried, unsuccessfully, to keep the cell phone service out of remote tribal areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, U.S. troops have learned to forget about the big payoffs and concentrate on the small ones. As U.S. Army Special Forces operators have long known (and constantly teach the regular army troops they work with), little favors (that won't be noticed by the Taliban enforcers) get you little bits of information. These bits add up and some have led to nailing whales (guys with big prices on their heads). One of the more popular favors in the backcountry is medical care. Out there, not much is to be had. For this reason, the two medics in each Special Forces Alpha Detachment ("A-Team") have been taught to treat common maladies encountered in poor, isolated, areas. An astute diagnoses, and prompt application of some antibiotics, can save the life of someone dear to the heart of somebody else with information you need. Sometimes the troops will bring a surgeon in, to perform a lifesaving (or life altering) procedure. This yields much good will and loosens tongues.

The big thing about medical care is that it's not as visible as a pile of cash (which usually results in something flashy being bought and dangerous queries from the local Taliban), but means a lot more than mere things. Pakistani or Afghan doctors don't like travelling to the tribal territories. Too dangerous. Those who can afford medical care travel to a town or city that has it. But the U.S. and NATO soldiers have access to drugs and medical care wherever they are. Sharing it is often more valuable, or at least more practical, than a $25 million reward.

The Russians have adapted many of these techniques to their own situation. Some of these ideas are not new to Russia. Offering favors or scarce resources to people in return for cooperation has long been used in Russia, especially by the Soviet era secret police. But since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a free market economy has made a lot of economic goodies and opportunities freely available. So the Russian police are open to new ideas from the West.



Article Archive

Counter-Terrorism: Current 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close