The U.S. military has given U.S. News an official explanation for its stealth reduction of what had once been a $5 million bounty on the head of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, to a mere $100,000.
"The reason the reward was reduced was because information about him is not as valuable to us today as it was a year ago," says U.S. Navy Capt. James Graybeal, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for military operations in Iraq. "Ultimately, it's a reflection of our belief that he is not as effective a leader on the battlefield as he was, say, a year ago. We're not willing to invest."
The $5 million reward for information leading to al-Masri's death or capture had been quietly reduced to $1 million more than a year ago and then was slashed to only $100,000 in late February. It was also moved from the State Department's high-profile Rewards for Justice program to a lesser-known Department of Defense rewards effort. U.S. News on Monday first reported the reduction in the reward, which had been done with no public announcement.
Graybeal says that U.S. military officials "routinely" review the reward amounts to calibrate them with the threat from each wanted individual.
When Pentagon officials first revealed al-Masri's identity in June 2006, they called him the successor to al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab Zarqawi. Al-Masri is accused of helping to build a series of deadly car bombs in Baghdad starting in 2003. In recent months, officials have described AQI as a weakened organization, but one still capable of staging deadly attacks.
The move to slash the reward also sends a message to al-Masri. "The message is that we don't value information about him as much as we did a year ago," says a senior U.S. military official. "I don't know how he's going to feel about that, but our assessment is that he's not the leader he once was."
More broadly, officials insist that the Pentagon rewards programs have paid off in Iraq. "We've gotten around 400 bad guys rolled up because of this program," Graybeal says. "It's not something we take lightly."
—Anna Mulrine and Kevin Whitelaw