The U.S. government has quietly withdrawn a $5 million reward it was offering for the killing or capture of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, named by Pentagon officials as the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Al-Masri had been one of America's most wanted figures in Iraq ever since his identity was revealed in 2006. But U.S. News has learned that the bounty for him was reduced and that he was unceremoniously dropped in late February from the State Department's Rewards for Justice Program, which offers cash payments for information that leads to the capture or killing of wanted terrorists.
Currently, the bounty for the Egyptian militant stands at $100,000, a more modest payout that is now covered by the separate—and decidedly lower profile—Department of Defense Rewards Program.
It is a startling development given that U.S. military officials have frequently touted al-Masri's danger ever since they revealed his identity with great fanfare at a briefing in June 2006. At the time, it was considered a propaganda coup to show that AQI was being led by an Egyptian, because the group had been claiming that an Iraqi man became its leader after the death of its founder, Abu Musab Zarqawi.
Officially, defense sources say that rewards have historically been reduced for a number of reasons. "When they have reduced rewards in the past, some of the discussion has been to devalue them [the terrorists], to not hold them in such high regard," says a senior defense official. It's psychological warfare of sorts: "It may cause them to do things that say, 'Look, I'm important,'" says the official—and in so doing, perhaps do something that makes it easier for them to be captured. The reasons in the past have also been more pedestrian, adds the official. "Sometimes the rewards are set so high that for some people maybe $100,000 is more tangible than $1 million."
Others insist that the move reflects a shift in thinking about the importance of al-Masri. "The overarching reason is his blatant ineffectiveness as a leader of AQI," says a U.S. military official.
Particularly striking, however, given the heavy emphasis that the U.S. government has placed on the target, is the number of senior officials who were only vaguely aware of the reduction in the bounty on al-Masri. "I had heard that they were talking about doing that," says a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad. "I would think that we have some input on that." The move also leaves questions about why Pentagon officials would want to remove al-Masri from the Rewards for Justice site, which has higher visibility on the Web than the Pentagon's program.
When U.S. officials first revealed al-Masri's identity, the Pentagon offered a $250,000 reward for his capture. Later, the figure was raised to $5 million as part of the State Department's rewards program. But al-Masri's photos were removed from the Rewards for Justice website in February, although some other government websites have not been updated to reflect the change.
Last week, Iraqi police reported that they had captured al-Masri, but U.S. officials denied the report and insist that he remains at large. The confusion followed apparently erroneous reports in 2006 and 2007 that al-Masri had been killed.
In recent months, AQI has suffered serious operational defeats, particularly after Sunni tribesmen turned against the group in Iraq's Anbar province. But AQI remains the largest Sunni extremist organization in Iraq and retains strength in northern Iraq, near the city of Mosul.
Al-Masri first rose to prominence as a senior operational commander under Zarqawi's leadership of AQI. U.S. officials believe that al-Masri was involved in the construction of car bombs used in AQI's 2003 deadly attacks on the United Nations headquarters and the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, as well as bombings of Shiite celebrations and a U.S. checkpoint, according to the National Counterterrorism Center.